Do your undergrads actually understand their summer research project?

Cara Jefferson, undergrad extraordinaire

All over the country, undergraduates are embarking on research projects. They are banding birds, squeezing ticks for parasites, culturing bacteria, seining streams, cutting open mice, and many other things. If you ask them what they are doing, they will be able to tell you. They can probably go over their methods in some detail. They will have learned techniques, how to measure properly, perhaps to use a fancy microscope, or how to untangle a bird from a net.

But do they understand why they are doing this particular project? Could they explain to their congressperson or their friend what questions they will answer and why these questions are important? If they were given a list of 5 projects could they pick out the one that is best for asking and anwering a big question? The answer to this is all too often no. But why?

In a way it is simple. The things that matter on a day to day basis are what they know. They may not have been there when the project was devised. They may have had it explained at the beginning and not again. So it is up to their mentors, the PI of the lab and their bench or field mentors to explain the project, to provide readings on it, and then to listen to the students tell it back to them so it is clear they understand. This should be done orally and in writing. It should be reinforced frequently.

This came up in a different way this week with one of our undergraduates. She is very ambitious and eager to do the best possible work this summer.  Her project is going very well so far. She is very organized and has figured out exactly how much time her project will take and would like another one to fill her time.  So what did we do?

Instead of taking her word for it and moving on to discussing different projects, we had her meet with us and explain the existing project in detail. This gave her another chance to show us she understood it. It gave us a chance to remember in detail exactly what it was since it is a project that spins off of a graduate student project. Of course he was also present. With that refreshed understanding, we were then able to guide her not to a side project, but to ways to augment the existing project. Sometimes this involves additional replicates. Sometimes it involves growing things on their own and just looking at them. Sometimes, for our work which is on a population of evolved bacteria, it involves plating them out clonally and looking for morphological variation in the population. These additional parts of the existing project are the best approach in this case. This will give our marvelous student a better understanding of the project, a way of discovering new angles herself, and a way to fill her research time.

What is the main message? It is that students should be given lots of opportunities to explain the point of their main projects. They should grow with the project, adding dimensions as they find time. It isn’t that a second project is never all right, but in a short summer, doing the best on the main project, from the daily work to writing and analysis, will likely take all the time. Even beginning with a dummy dataset for practicing analysis can be a good idea.

Pay attention to your undergrads and be sure they get the point of the research project, not once, but daily having to remind you and themselves what it is all about and how it can be enhanced. After all, pipetting can get old if you don’t remember the point of it all.



About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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