Independent Study Projects and Senior Thesis by Geoscience MajorsBy Patricia Manley, Middlebury College and Meagen Pollock, The College of Wooster
Jump down to: Strategies | Logistics | Problems | Rewards | Faculty Promotion and Tenure | Advising Students | Funding Students | Assessment | Independent Study/Senior Thesis Examples | References and Resources
Pedagogy The pedagogy on inquiry-based learning research is extensive. The benefits of doing this style of research are that it can:
- Promote critical thinking skills
- Teach the scientific method of research
- Enhance students' communication skills
- Improve skills in graphic presentation
Design of research project
StepsThe design of a independent study or senior research project can vary. Click on the links below to show a suggested outline of steps to consider when designing an independent study or a year-long senior thesis.
Outline of steps for an independent study
- One-on-one tutorial with faculty adviser in the spring of their Junior year in which students:
- Earn credit for one full course
- Discuss papers with adviser and write a lit review
- Learn lab and field techniques prior to field work
- Work with faculty to develop a project proposal
- Prior to field work, faculty:
- Share photos, samples, and experiences from the site
- Clarify expectations of students for research in the field:
- help with preparations (make reservations, gather equipment, prepare samples for analysis)
- engage the project and people (taking field notes and helping others, even if it's not the student's field area; summer research is a team effort)
- help finalize the research (archive data and samples, put away equipment, file reimbursements, write abstracts)
- Provide information about the trip:
- Travel arrangements, itinerary, packing list
- Check with the CDC and State Department for travel info such as obtaining a passport, required immunizations, and travel warnings, particularly if traveling outside of the United States
- Emergency contact information
- Weather for field site
- Give students a cultural context by discussing current events, entertainment, and history for their field region.
Outline of steps for a year-long senior thesis
- Designing the research project
- The project is usually part of the faculty's research
- Make the project goals obtainable in a year-long time frame
- Have a discussion with the prospective student during in the spring of their Junior year, during which you outline the required research and time commitments
- Starting the project
- Teach any lab or field techniques prior to field work
- Not necessary, but helpful, is to employ the student the summer prior to their senior year
- Field work or Data Collection
- Develop a time schedule for data collection
- Does the data collection require long periods of field time?
- Can the data collection begin in the fall of the student's senior year?
- Does field work need to occur during the summer prior to their senior year?
- Work with the student to map out field work/data collection times
- Data Analysis
- Set a clear timeline or schedule for data collection
- Work out timing of equipment use within your department
- Have "how to" procedures for individual pieces of equipment
- Have a contact faculty for each piece of equipment
- Oral Defense, Written thesis
- Encourage the student to attend national or sectional GSA meetings, National Conferences on Undergraduate Research annual meeting, or state meetings to present their results
- Have students present at colloquium meetings at their home institutes
- Have a department thesis guideline for the written thesis
- Have an oral defense
- Make sure that all data and samples are archived and lab spaces are cleaned
StrategiesTo make sure that the student project will be successful, it is important to map out and determine that all the needed resources are available. Specifically:
- Plan the project out prior to discussion with student
- Make sure that it is a doable project in the designated time frame
- Confirm that all the needed equipment, literature, or resources are available
- Be prepared to provide constant supervision and mentoring
LogisticsThe following are a few of the guidelines that can help to make a project successful. Consider making a contract with the student and clearly outline expectations for working with undergraduate students. The Early Career module has more information about setting expectations with students.
- Define a specific project with concrete start and end point
- Reiterate the purpose for doing this research several times
- Begin with a very structured approach and then amend this as needed to meet the needs of individual students
- Be concrete in defining goals and the timing for achieving these goals.
- Do lots of one-on-one mentoring
- Organize meeting times with student's schedule - weekly or lab time
- Have the student add 3 hours of research/analysis/writing time per week to their schedule
- Give the student a notebook for their research. Let them know that notebook is returned to you at the end of the year. Encourage the students to write in the notebook all pertinent information with regards to the data collection/analyses. It may also be helpful to have the student photocopy new content in the notebook on a weekly basis so that you have a spare set of notes should the notebook get lost.
- Revamp continually
- Redefine the project if student can't do the required work
- Expand the project when needed
- Implementation of a project - student's design
RewardsThere are many rewards in working with undergraduate students on projects. A few of these rewards are listed below and have been highlighted by faculty and students doing senior and/or independent research projects.
- Some students excel in independent research - particularly those who might not be the highest academically
- Both oral and written work are stressed
- Students are better prepared for graduate research work
- Students can have at least one abstract published
- Projects that are a part of a faculty research project can make the independent study/thesis more meaningful to the student
- Generates close rapport with faculty and students
- Faculty get to work with great students
- Students are generally excited and often will do "grunge" or "rote" work happily
- Alumni returning comment that doing an independent study or senior thesis was the most remembered thing about their college experience
It is important to know what your institution's culture is regarding doing independent/senior undergraduate research. Specifically, will this add to your tenure package? Do you get credit for undertaking undergraduate research? Since doing independent studies or senior thesis is a large time commitment, are you at the right stage of your career to start undertaking this? However, in the realm of receiving and obtaining grants, student research is important as are papers with student authors. Often NSF/NIH look to see if there is an undergraduate component and doing undergraduate research is broader impact within the NSF definition.
The Early Career module has a section with information, tips, advice, and references devoted to preparing for and getting tenure. CUR also has several publications that are helpful for early career faculty Spring 2008 - Challenges for Early Career Faculty (more info) . You can also review the publications provided by CUR on their Publications page .
Advising studentsThe Early Career site has information on advising students.
Funding for student research
- Getting support for student research - learn more about how to fund student research
- Other smaller funds may be obtained from Sigma Xi, GSA student grants, and Assoc. of Women Geoscientists student grants
- Undergraduate sources for funding - a list of several organizations and institutions that provide funding for undergraduate research from the Early Career module.
AssessmentFor assessing the independent project or senior thesis work, various tools/rubrics are being developed. A few sites that address assessment can be found at:
- CUR Spring 2009 Quarterly (more info) Singer and Weiler, 2009, A Longitudinal Student Outcomes Evaluation of the Buffalo State College Summer Undergraduate Research Program, CUR Quarterly, vol 29, p. 20-25.
- Undergraduate research assessment - from the Pedagogy in Action project, learn more about formative and summative assessment in undergraduate research
- Assessment module - from the Starting Point: Teaching Entry Level Geoscience project, this module provides a wealth of information and resources for assessment methods and practices.
- Early Career Workshop on Collaborating with Students, with links to adviser-student contracts and case studies.
Independent Study/Senior Thesis examplesMany colleges have initiated and maintained Independent study and senior thesis work for decades. Every college/university has their own specific method of promoting this. It is suggested that you do an internet search on "geology undergraduate senior thesis guidelines" and review the multitude of institutions doing undergraduate research. In particular, we highlight Wooster for its well-recognized program. See "A Creative Adventure": Undergraduate Research at the College of Wooster in October's AAC&U News and the description of the Independent Study program at the College of Wooster and particularly for Geology.
References and Resources
There are considerable resources on undergraduate research that can assist in setting up undergraduate independent study/senior thesis. How to Get Started in Research ( This site may be offline. ) is a CUR publication that is written to assist you in starting doing research with undergraduates. Other CUR Quarterly journals that are directed at doing undergraduate research are:
- Winter 2007-Models of Undergraduate Research (more info)
- Fall 2008 - Undergraduate research: An Early Start (more info)
Additionally, learn more about other undergraduate research opportunities at the national, regional, and institutional levels.