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What is Undergraduate Research?

"The undergraduate research experience may be the epitome of engaged learning" (Lopatto, 2006).
Undergraduate Research in Organic Garden
Faculty and students in environmental studies explore biomethods for water quality assessment. Photo Courtesy of Randolph College.

Undergraduate Research: A Definition

The Council for Undergraduate Research (CUR) and the National Conferences on Undergraduate Research (NCUR) are longstanding leaders in promoting undergraduate research. In 2005, they jointly endorsed the following statement on undergraduate research:

Its central premise is the formation of a collaborative enterprise between student and faculty member-most often one mentor and one burgeoning scholar but sometimes (particularly in the social and natural sciences) a team of either or both. This collaboration triggers a four-step learning process...

1. the identification of and acquisition of a disciplinary or interdisciplinary methodology

2. the setting out of a concrete investigative problem

3. the carrying out of the actual project

4. finally, the dispersing/sharing of a new scholar's discoveries with his or her peers- a step traditionally missing in most undergraduate educational programs. (NCUR)

Essentially, undergraduate research involves the same steps as research done by professionals.

This list of a generalized version of what Lopatto (2003) identifies as the essential features of undergraduate research as stated by faculty engaged in the practice. Figuring prominently in his list is also the idea that students experience some independence, have room for creativity, and feel ownership of the research project.


Undergraduate Research Teaches Disciplinary Practice

Undergraduate research experiences help students understand a particular topic or phenomenon in a field while simultaneously strengthening their comprehension of research and research methods. Undergraduate research is inquiry-based learning that involves practicing a discipline, not just being told about it. Students learn and apply the tools by which knowledge is created in their disciplines. They discover firsthand how the steps of the research process are related to one another, experience the triumphs and pitfalls inherent to the creative process, see that research is an iterative process and that ambiguity is part of the real world, develop an understanding and appreciation of how knowledge evolves, and produce an original contribution to that body of knowledge.


Undergraduate Research is Engaged Learning

Undergraduate research is engaged learning in a number of respects. It is a form of both experience-based learning and active learning, and it can engage students with contexts, including the social and civic. The mentoring and collaboration dimensions of undergradaute research can foster ownership for learning and encourage a committment to high standards and accountability. While the research process in a discipline may be well-established, research always requires creativity, as well as patience and resolve in grappling with what sometimes feels ambiguous to all participants, including the faculty mentor. These features create opportunities for students to explore their own learning styles as well as develop exposure to those of others.


Undergraduate Research Can Take Many Forms

Undergraduate research projects can be designed to fit a variety of class constructs and to promote student learning at all levels of undergraduate education. Undergraduate research projects can be student or faculty initiated, and students can either participate in a work in progress or enter a project at its start.

When they are structured properly, class-based activities (naturalistic observation, surveys, quantitative writing assignments and experiments) can be undergraduate research experiences. So can class-based research projects (term papers, service learning, community-based and campus-based learning), capstone experiences (senior and honors theses), and out-of-class student/faculty collaborative research (like summer research experiences).

Some institutions and departments offer support and programs for undergraduate research through student/faculty summer research programs or undergraduate research offices. Even without such support, faculty can follow a well-defined process for developing undergraduate research and determining its best form for the course or experience they are considering.






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