August 10, 2020

Revisiting the continua of undergraduate research

Posted by Laura Guertin

How does your institution define undergraduate research? You may have adopted your definition from the Council on Undergraduate Research (CUR), which states undergraduate research is “an inquiry or investigation conducted by an undergraduate student that makes an original intellectual or creative contribution to the discipline” (see CUR mission). You may have added to the definition the role of a faculty mentor in the collaboration. Or, you may have struggled like my campus, when we spent an entire year in meetings and brown bag discussions trying to formulate a definition that captures us, and we found that one size (or definition) did not fit all that we do (this was as incredibly rewarding year and meaningful in bringing our faculty together and deepening our understanding of student engagement within and across disciplines).

At the national level, there have been multi-day summits/workshops to explore what undergraduate research looks like (Community College Undergraduate Research Experience (URE) Summit [more details in blog posts], Convocation on Integrating Discovery-Based Research Into the Undergraduate Curriculum [more details in blog posts]), as a teaching practice and/or in the first two years (SERC’s Undergraduate Research as Teaching Practice, SAGE 2YC Engage 2YC Students in Research, On The Cutting Edge  Undergraduate Research in Earth Science Classes: Engaging Students in the First Two Years), and plenty of papers written (see Lopatto’s Peer Review article, Undergraduate Research as a High-Impact Student Experience) and books (see Hensel’s Course-Based Undergraduate Research: Educational Equity and High-Impact Practice).

The list of resources and reports goes on and on… but now might be a good time to go back and review these practices, approaches, and opportunities of engagement. Many institutions are under physical distancing restrictions for the fall semester, and some students are being restricted from completing off-site internships and field experiences, or even working in on-campus laboratories. So how do we help students navigate the new physical spaces of completing undergraduate research – better yet, how are we as individual faculty and departments defining a research/engagement experience?

One paper that I read years ago in CUR Quarterly that has stuck with me all these years is the Beckman and Hensel (2009) paper titled Making Explicit the Implicit: Defining Undergraduate Research. Early in the paper, the authors define the components and practices of undergraduate research along these continua, and further explain each in the manuscript:

Continua of undergraduate research

Reproduced from Mary Beckman and Nancy Hensel, “Making Explicit the Implicit: Defining Undergraduate Research,” CUR Quarterly, 2009, 29(4): 40. Reproduced by permission of the Council on Undergraduate Research.

What’s important to note is that each of these experiences offer degrees of engagement, ownership, and value to students. I would add that students could be in the first two years, or in the final two years, to this collection of continua. And another item that is absent, a topic I also often reflect about after hearing Freeman Hrabowski speak at the CUR 2018 Conference, about Undergraduate Research: A Right, Not a Privilege.

So instead of shutting down undergraduate engagement/research experiences for students this academic year, or telling them their experience is not as good or not of quality, why not go back and review what are the important outcomes and design and frame those experiences with new formats and new approaches. Consider how the virtual opportunities can make undergraduate research more accessible and inclusive. And importantly, plan on ways to celebrate the accomplishments students make along the continua of undergraduate research.