Dr. Rowan Lockwood, College of William and Mary
Rowan Lockwood teaches in the geology department at the College of William and Mary, in Williamsburg, Virginia. The College of William and Mary, the second oldest college in the United States, is a small, public, liberal arts university (College of William and Mary, 2005), with an all-undergraduate geology department. At William and Mary, every geology major completes a senior research project, and every faculty member in the department is expected to contribute to supervising these projects. Each faculty member is also expected to maintain an externally-funded research program that will result in one or two peer-reviewed publications each year. With a teaching load of 1.5 to 3 classes per semester, maintaining this level of research activity is a challenge.
Benefits of independent, related projects
Weekly lab meetings: their structure and purposes (includes a video clip of Rowan describing the lab meetings)
Challenges of undergraduate student research projects
Choosing research directions
Advice for early career faculty
Rowan's research program: students working on independent, but related, projects
Rowan typically has four or more student researchers working with her every year. Although only senior students are required to do research projects, she also welcomes enthusiastic, interested sophomores and juniors into her lab. Almost every student research project is a small piece of Rowan's own long term research program. At the same time, her students are involved in every aspect of their research projects: e.g. literature searches, formulating the questions they will tackle, designing data collection and analysis techniques. Senior students work independently on substantial, year-long projects, which often result in presentations at regional conferences and occasionally result in publication; younger students work in pairs on somewhat smaller projects.
There are many aspects of this arrangement that work well, both for Rowan and for her students. Students get the very real experience of doing a research project, from start to finish – experience that Rowan believes will be valuable to them no matter what they plan to do next. They also develop a sense of responsibility as they work independently on their projects. Rowan, meanwhile, makes progress on her own research program, as she can usually make use of her students' data. In addition, students bring a fresh perspective to their research questions, sometimes providing creative ideas that Rowan would not have developed on her own. And, of course, she also satisfies her department's expectation of mentoring senior students.
Weekly lab meetings: the key to success
Every week, Rowan holds a group meeting with the students who work in her research lab. Early in the year, each student may talk for 10 to 15 minutes about what progress he or she has made in the past week and his or her goals for the coming week. They may discuss the background literature they're reading, explain the question they're researching, bring in data to discuss with their peers, talk about problems they're having in data collection, and so on. Later in the year, students take turns presenting pieces of their research (question, methods, and data, or analysis and interpretation) for the whole meeting time. Occasionally, Rowan uses the lab meeting to talk about internship opportunities, career options, graduate school applications, statistical analysis, or other topics her students have requested.
These meetings serve several purposes:
- They keep students on task, making progress throughout the year.
- They provide some peer pressure; for a student who hasn't done anything in the past week, seeing that his or her colleagues have been busy seems to be more effective than any criticism Rowan might voice.
- They make it easy to solve problems early, before they get out of hand.
- Students have multiple opportunities to practice presentation skills.
- Rowan gets to hear about their progress, in a very time-efficient manner.
- They provide an opportunity for the students to get to know each other better, laying the groundwork for long-term social and professional networks. Rowan's first "lab group," now graduate students at a variety of different schools, had a "mini-reunion" at the 2005 GSA meeting.
Video clip of Rowan describing the lab meetings:
There are several challenges to designing effective undergraduate research projects. For Rowan, one of the biggest challenges was that she had no experience with this kind of research program before coming to the College of William and Mary; her advisors did not hold regular lab meetings. She essentially created her own model of what a research group would look like, then made it happen. The second challenge was (and still is) designing year-long research projects that are of an appropriate scope for undergraduate students. Rowan finds that what a single research student can accomplish in a year varies widely from student to student. Finally, in order for her students' data to be useful to her, Rowan has to be closely involved as her students decide how to collect their data, and also monitor their data collection. Often the data are high enough quality for publication, but in some cases they do have to be discarded.
Choosing research directions
When Rowan started teaching at the College of William and Mary, she noticed that the geology department there emphasized research with a local field work component. She set about organizing her own research program around resources in the local area: field sites (e.g. the Chesapeake Bay), museums (e.g. the Smithsonian), and collaborators (at the USGS and the University of Delaware). These local resources helped to focus her attention on tractable research problems. She also considered, with all of the research projects she was interested in, which could be subdivided into year-long, undergraduate level research projects. In some cases, that has meant that each student researches a different site within a larger field area; in other cases, she has divided the work by time-rock units. Ultimately, every project she undertakes must help answer some broader paleobiological question that interests her.
Advice for early career faculty
Rowan advises pre-tenure faculty to carefully consider their time commitments. One of the hardest things she has had to do, to be successful at William and Mary, is to limit her student researchers to topics that will contribute to her own research program. While she feels selfish doing this, she also sees it as the best way to ensure that she can make progress in her work, and therefore stay on the path to tenure. In addition, Rowan does not always accept students who ask to work in her lab. She feels she can effectively supervise up to four senior thesis projects (along with one or two sophomores or juniors). And she does not necessarily take the first four who ask; she wants enthusiastic, hard-working students who have taken her paleontology class, and are likely to produce reliable data.
Rowan notes that using the student lab group approach to research "is incredibly time-consuming, sometimes very frustrating, and usually not as efficient as working independently.... [M]entoring students can often take much more time than simply doing the research itself." And, inevitably, some student projects are more successful than others. Nonetheless, she says, the positives outweigh the negatives.
- College of William and Mary (2005) "About William and Mary," online at http://www.wm.edu/about/index.php. Accessed October 7, 2005.