Independent Minds, Working Together

Wooster’s Undergraduate Research Program Highlighted in Journal Article

Successful approach outlined in Eos, the premier international newspaper of the Earth and space sciences

October 30, 2012 by John Finn

WOOSTER, Ohio — Mentored undergraduate research is the cornerstone of the curriculum at The College of Wooster. Since 1947, Wooster students have been required to complete a senior project, known as Independent Study (or I.S.). During the past six decades that commitment has grown steadily with the addition of numerous opportunities for students to develop lab and field skills in each of their four years of study.

Now, thanks to a group of Wooster faculty members in the Department of Geology, the rest of the scientific community and all of higher education can gain insight into the process. The four collaborated on an article that appeared in last month’s Eos, the premier international newspaper of the Earth and space sciences, produced by the American Geophysical Union. Titled "Mentored Undergraduate Research in the Geosciences,” the article outlines five fundamental best practices of undergraduate research.

Authored by Shelley Judge, Meagen Pollock, Greg Wiles, and Mark Wilson, the piece is anchored in the assertion that “research programs are strengthened when students and faculty collaborate to build new knowledge.” The four authors contend that although structured undergraduate research programs can be complex and resource intensive, they have proven to be “highly effective” in enhancing “the teaching of scholarship and research” to faculty while providing “life-changing experiences for students.”

The Council on Undergraduate Research (CUR) defines the process as “an inquiry or an investigation conducted by an undergraduate student that makes an original intellectual or creative contribution to the discipline.” The Wooster model favors mentored undergraduate research, which places the responsibility on the student, but provides advice and encouragement from a faculty adviser. “The key is faculty immersion into students’ academic and scholarly successes,” say the authors. “Mentors emphasize accomplishing tasks together as collaborators and use best practice pedagogies in the teaching of scholarly research methods and ways of thinking.”

Independent Study defines Wooster’s culture, and its success, according to the authors, is based on five fundamental tenets, the first of which is preparation within the curriculum. With courses designed to concentrate on specific outcomes, faculty in the Department of Geology at Wooster have designed a curriculum that “reflects and emphasizes the components of mentored undergraduate research.” It encourages faculty to be “purposeful in their use of various teaching practices within a framework of thoughtful sequencing and scaffolding.” Introductory courses guide students through the collection of data to the recording of observations under the guidance of an instructor. This prepares the students to become capable and effective researchers in their junior and senior years.

The second component of a successful undergraduate research program is the interaction that takes place between students and their faculty mentors. “Faculty and students should be interdependent…(and) create an exchange of responsibility that is cooperative and collegial,” say the authors. As a result of this relationship, students take ownership of their project and “become better able to contribute to the knowledge base of a discipline.” It is particularly important, that students and faculty develop clear expectations for the process. Faculty accessibility and approachability are also vital to a productive relationship, which should be both professional and personal so that a student feels supported while understanding the need to be accountable.

A third important principle of a successful undergraduate research program is real-time scientific discussion. “A true student-faculty collaboration means that no step is taken in the research process without the student,” say the authors. This ensures that students “participate at every level, from hypothesis formation and data collection through synthesis and interpretation.” In addition, students are more likely to contribute “when they realize that their input is valued.” Real-time conversations help students grow as scientists and communicators. Then, when they present the results of their work at regional and national meetings, they gain confidence and “take more ownership of their project.”

The fourth component of the process is a careful mix of guidance and independent research. “Faculty mentors must balance their need to intervene proactively with the student’s need for independence,” say the authors. One way to do this is to empower students to drive the process, including setting their own deadlines. This gives them independence while demanding accountability.

The fifth building block to successful undergraduate research is the recognition of the power of peer-to-peer instruction and mentoring. “Peer mentoring can promote self-confidence, enhance independence, and encourage cohesive collaborative learning communities,” say the authors. One method is to assign experienced upper-level students to demonstrate field and lab techniques to younger students. Another option is group research experiences, in which all students contribute and build confidence through cooperative learning.

“The Department of Geology takes the core mission of I.S. seriously, as we feel that majors actively engaged in research have enriched college experiences, especially during their last two years at Wooster,” says Judge. “Working one-on-one or in collaborative research teams with our majors in the field and in the lab allows our students to grow as scientists and communicators. This process greatly improves the chances of those students eventually working in a STEM-related fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) once they finish their formal education. In short, I.S. is academically stimulating for both students and faculty, and it creates interactions and collaborations that last well beyond graduation.”