Saturday, February 12, 2011

Undergraduate Researchers: What's Their Next Step?

I've written before about my participation in a teaching fellowship called On Recent Discoveries by Emory Researchers (ORDER), but I wanted to reflect a little more on my experiences working with the talented undergraduates in these classes. Because I want to preserve my students' privacy/anonymity, I'll be discussing them and their research projects in fairly general terms. But, I will say that I have been consistently impressed with my students. I'm privileged to be a mentor for them as they pursue their academic goals.

The cool thing about ORDER is that it's interdisciplinary. Last fall, ORDER fellows (we're actually called "Teacher-Scholars" in official ORDER materials) taught a first year seminar for the incoming class of INSPIRE students. This meant that most of our class had an interest in the sciences, and some had even pursued scientific research experiences in high school. Even so, when they were asked to devise independent research projects as part of the course, the students created and tested hypotheses that spanned the social sciences as well as the biological sciences. Several of them also decided to take classes in the social sciences and humanities after completing our course. This was at least in part because of the research shared by Teacher-Scholars from the Department of Sociology and the Graduate Division of Religion, as well as the students' own inquiries into non-science topics.

This semester, my ORDER cohort is teaching a similar course for upper-level undergraduates in multiple disciplines. (The seminar is cross-listed in: Chemistry, Biology, Neurobiology and Behavior, Physics, Psychology, Religion, Sociology, and Theatre Arts!) Our students are more advanced than last semester's freshmen. Most are currently pursuing research and/or have decided that they are interested in postgraduate education. Many of them have been supported up until this point by the awesome undergraduate research programs at Emory. They are so awesome, in fact, that there are YouTube videos documenting them!



Programs like Scholarly Inquiry and Research at Emory (SIRE) support undergrads working in all majors, not just the sciences. I know of many universities that have scientific research opportunities for students, either during the summer or the academic year, but it seems less common for disciplines like sociology. So, I think it's really cool that Emory is supporting research by students like Kristen Clayton:



By providing a pool of funds dedicated to undergraduate researchers, SIRE allows all students to access a research experience. This is crucial — some faculty might not be able or willing to pay an undergrad from their own funds, and many students don't have the financial luxury of taking an unpaid position. SIRE also provides training in communication skills, research ethics, and other important areas that students will need to master for a successful career.

In working with these students (not just SIRE fellows, although I think the presence of the program encourages more Emory undergrads to get involved in research in general), I've been thinking more about how the other Teacher-Scholars and I can prepare them to take the next step in their research careers. How can we help them use their Emory experiences as a jumping-off point for their graduate and professional education? Pondering this has forced me to think outside my own areas of expertise — I'm responsible for mentoring neuroscientists, but also chemists, sociologists, humanists, artists, and students who still haven't made up their minds about what they want to do.

In my next post, I'll share a couple of the ideas that I've come up with (in collaboration with other members of the ORDER program). In the mean time, I'd be interested in hearing ideas from the peanut gallery of the academic blogosphere. How would you approach this kind of class? What do you wish you'd known when you were preparing to graduate from college, and how can I convey that information to my students?

1 comment:

  1. About a year ago, I had the chance to TA for my department's Psych Methods course. The final project for this course is an experiment, which the students design and execute with the help of the TAs. It was fun, but also very work intensive.

    If there's anything that I learned from that experience, it was to stay flexible -- my students were interested in all sorts of things, and many of them were well outside my area of expertise. If I couldn't advise them directly about their project, I tried to at least point them in the right direction. It was a challenging experience, and also very time intensive. I wish I had had more time to devote to it.

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