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January 11, 2007

Undergrad research: Leader explains value

Undergraduate research opportunities are on the rise at colleges and universities nationwide as a body of research touting the many benefits of engaging students in research continues to grow.

Recent data show that students who have had research experiences at the undergraduate level are more likely to go on to graduate school and have a better focus on their career goals. They tend to be better equipped for the workplace, not only with increased confidence, independence and connections, but also with concrete skills in utilizing primary literature, formulating hypotheses, interpreting data and communicating results.

Among the leaders in undergraduate research programs is the University of Michigan. Its undergraduate research opportunity program (UROP) has been recognized with numerous awards, including a No. 1 ranking in the 2002 U.S. News and World Report’s undergraduate research/creative projects category.

Michigan’s UROP director Sandra Gregerman recently visited Pitt to deliver the annual School of Arts and Sciences Teaching Excellence Lecture.

Gregerman, who has directed Michigan’s UROP program since 1992, has seen it grow to include 600 faculty members and twice that many students. Unlike Pitt’s program, which aims to make research opportunities available to undergraduates, the Michigan program’s goal at its inception in 1988 was to improve retention and academic success in historically underrepresented student populations.

Noting that 93 percent of white students graduated while only 65-70 percent of students in historically underrepresented groups did, Gregerman said Michigan set out to study why. “We were recruiting but not graduating these students,” she said, adding that remedial programs were not making the grade with regard to student retention.

Research into the issue showed that the quality and quantity of interactions with faculty outside the classroom were critically important for student retention and academic success, she said.

Gregerman said historically underrepresented students “often don’t identify in the same way white students do,” adding they’re often not as comfortable approaching faculty during office hours and may not understand the cultural or academic norms.

“Undergraduate research translates culture and sends a non-remedial message, she said, noting that students who are invited to participate in faculty research get the message that they are welcome, that they belong in that field, that college, that school.

“It’s a very different kind of message you’re sending out to students,” she said: “‘Join me.’”

For students from less well-equipped schools, research team participation also provides the opportunity to handle equipment students might never have seen before. “It leveled the playing field in a fundamental way for some of these students,” she noted.

“Undergraduate research actually does a lot of these things that are really important for student retention,” she said, adding that this holds true not just in the fields of science, technology, engineering and medicine, but in all academic disciplines.

“Developing research skills definitely has carryover to academic coursework,” she said.

Gregerman said membership in a research team initiates an undergraduate to the norms, language and culture of a particular discipline and helps him or her to be part of a group. In addition, it gives students a long-term view of the academic pipeline ahead. “It’s important to know early on you don’t just focus on a PhD, there’s this thing called a post doc,” she said. It also helps increase involvement in learning, makes difficult class work more relevant and increases the faculty-student interactions outside the classroom that are so important.

Gregerman said her original retention study found the most significant improvement in retention was for African-American men, typically the most underrepresented group on any campus, she said.

Focus group interviews found UROP students to be more proactive, in charge and more positive about interacting with faculty and graduate students. They also appeared to have developed networking skills: seeking out people rather than things as resources, she said.

“One could say they’re go-getters,” she said. “Nice things happen to them as well. They’re more culturally competent.”

A survey of program alumni found they were more likely to go on to graduate school. “It in many ways leveled the playing field for who’s gone on to grad school,” she said.

“I am more and more convinced that the whole socialization into a discipline is one of the most important things that happens to students,” she said.


And it’s not just the students who are learning. Through close contact with a more diverse group, faculty gain insight into the value of diversity and about the barriers that historically underrepresented students face.

Gregerman’s program has grown by word-of-mouth both for student and faculty participants. Enthusiastic professors who view the program as a way to generate majors may spread the word to their colleagues and get them on board as well. Students learn about the program via friends or siblings.

An annual research symposium is the major student recruitment event. At the end of each year, UROP participants present their work through poster and oral presentations. High schoolers are invited to see what could be in store for them. Paired with UROP students, they eat in the residence halls and visit the symposium as part of their campus visit. “It really is among the better things we do,” she said.

Gregerman also recruits faculty participants through targeted mailings and newsletter articles. And, noting a generational change, she said newer assistant professors who themselves have had an undergraduate research experience are good prospects. “They look for it and often are among the first people to sign on,” she said.

She’s also found that the group most interested in undergraduate research is faculty whose children are approaching college age. “If you only find that demographic, you’d have a great cohort,” she joked.


Her UROP program aims to make it easy for professors by training students in using the library, the Internet and specific computer programs. “The list is growing over the years,” she said, and soon may include more technical lab procedure training such as polymerase chain reaction microassay to make students more research-ready.

Other enrichment activities for the students involve introducing them to the concept of interdisciplinary research, which Gregerman called the wave of the future. Part of that involves field trips across campus to give students a glimpse of how research appears in a variety of disciplines. “Sometimes we make the engineers go to the art museum to show how research gets treated differently in different fields,” she said.

Gregerman stressed that timing is key, adding that focusing on first- and second-year students is important. “If you wait to engage them in their junior or senior year, many may already have become discouraged and left,” she said, noting that’s particularly true for historically underrepresented students and for women in the sciences. “Early engagement is critical,” she said.

Peer advising also is important. The Michigan program matches participants by academic discipline with juniors and seniors who are alumni of the UROP program. Regular group meetings teach the newer students about issues ranging from methodology and research integrity to how to interact with faculty. “They’re time-consuming but worthwhile,” she said of the seminars. Students also meet individually with peer advisers to discuss their progress.

Other programs have sprung from the original. A research scholars program for second-year UROP students provides special seminars focused on academic plans, preparing for graduate school, getting published and professional development. Journal clubs are planned.

An offshoot of the UROP program focuses on juniors and seniors who have not been part of the freshman and sophomore program. This allows transfer students to participate, she said.

A residential program, begun eight years ago with 130 students, also allows for innovative experiences that couldn’t be done with students scattered all across campus, she said.

—Kimberly K. Barlow

Filed under: Feature,Volume 39 Issue 9

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