Undergraduate Research on the Increase at American Colleges!

Dear Commons Community,

The Chronicle of Higher Education has an article this morning commenting on the rise of research by undergraduates at a number of colleges and universities.  While hard data is lacking, the article comments that undergraduate research has expanded in the last couple of decades to hundreds of colleges of all sizes and types.  Here is an excerpt:

“In just a few months, Rachael G. Nutt’s undergraduate thesis at the University of Vermont — on menstruation and fertility in Italian Renaissance art — has already been downloaded more than 400 times.

Her 70-page paper helps explain such mysteries as why the artists painted urinating boys on wedding gifts. (It’s one of many symbols, Ms. Nutt concluded, thought to have encouraged fertility.)

The thesis — and its unexpectedly strong public reception — is also part of a new era of undergraduate research that’s helping colleges and universities understand exactly what such early-stage scholars should be taught, and be expected to accomplish.

At the undergraduate level, “it’s pretty extraordinary to have this experience,” said Ms. Nutt’s faculty adviser, Kelley Helmstutler Di Dio, a professor of art history.

Initially a phenomenon found mostly at small, elite private institutions, undergraduate research has expanded in the last couple of decades to hundreds of colleges of all sizes and types.

Still elusive, however, is good information on how best to shape those programs, assess their benefits, and repeat their successes. Just the number of undergraduate research programs is tough to estimate.

“This evolution is happening so quickly,” said Elizabeth L. Ambos, executive officer of the Council on Undergraduate Research, “it’s hard to measure.”

One of the clearest shifts has been the expansion of undergraduate research from its origins in the hard sciences to a variety of social sciences, Ms. Ambos said. In just a decade, the council has formed an arts-and-humanities division that now amounts to more than 1,000 people, or about 10 percent of its overall membership, she said.

Across the fields, there are some relatively basic ideas on how best to proceed. For students working in a professor’s lab, the benefit appears greater when the students participate in decisions and strategies rather than just perform technical functions.

Similarly, in classroom-based labs, students benefit when they design and carry out a relatively open-ended inquiry, rather than just repeat lab experiments that have been done thousands of times before.”

This is a highly desirable development and one that should be encouraged in undergraduate programs throughout the country.  If guided properly, conducting small-scale research projects can be a most valuable experience for students in any discipline.




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