Research for Underrepresented Groups/Non-Traditional Students

Bob Shuster, University of Nebraska-Omaha


The lack of students from under-represented populations in STEM areas has been much written about and discussed (Longtime and Jones, 2011), as well as in the Geosciences (O'Connell and Holmes, 2011). An area which has shown promise in the recruitment, retention, and success of these students (as well as non-traditonal students) has been the involvement of these students in undergraduate research.

Extensive research has been done on the positive effect of undergraduate research experiences on non-traditional students and under-represented students in their learning, retention in STEM fields, and ultimate success. Involving students from these populations in research experiences allows them to understand that geology is a profession and that they can make a living being a geologist. Thus, research serves as a stepping-stone to the profession.

This module will discuss efforts in general STEM areas, in the geosciences, and recruitment of such students. Research shows that involving these students in real, relevant research introduces them to the possibilities of being scientists and gives them experience doing what scientists do. A publication, Broadening Participation in Undergraduate Research: Fostering Excellence and Enhancing the Impact (2009), is now available from the Council on Undergraduate Research with ideas on involving non-traditional and underrepresented population students. The National Research Council (2007) has recently published Understanding Interventions that Encourage Minorities to Pursue Research Careers, Summary of a Workshop.

Case Studies

Integrating students from under-represented populations in research

University of Michigan UROP Program:

The Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (UROP) at the University of Michigan engages students (including those from under-represented populations) in research in their first year and pairs them up with second year students (mentors). This successful program has shown that this provides the student with an "anchor" in STEM. They have a sense of ownership and responsibility in their research and this program provides them with a cohort of peers and advisors to help them. In an article in CUR Quarterly, Director Sandra Gregerman reports that students from under-represented groups find that, as a result of this research experience, students are more willing to interact with faculty outside of the classroom, participate more in study groups, and take part in more academic activities than students who don't participate. Their tracking data show that overall retention and academic performance is improved and many of their students go on to careers in STEM areas.

Similar programs at the University of Wisconsin (Summer Research Opportunity Program) and Truman State University (also see reference list) also show similar positive results of involving students from under-represented populations in undergraduate research.

Undergraduate Research and Non-traditional Students

At many public and private institutions of higher learning, we are seeing more students who are classified as being non-traditional. These students are typically older than 25 years old, have nearly full-time jobs, have a family, and most likely have gone out into the world and have returned to finish their degrees or get another degree which will help them advance in their present positions or have disabilities. These characteristics present special challenges and allow for special opportunities when it comes to undergraduate research.

At the University of Nebraska at Omaha, we have found that working with the non-traditional student presents some unique/different challenges to working with traditional students (Shuster et al., 1999). A primary challenge is that the demands associated with job and familial commitments often result in delays and longer senior thesis/project completion times. For the same reasons, certain types of projects involving field work or lengthy travel are more difficult. However, working with non-traditional students presents opportunities as well. They could include the fact that these students are more mature, more driven, and may be in a better position to help support their own research. These students are often more independent and require less supervision than traditional students. Care must be taken in suggesting possible research topics. For example, non-traditional students may be more appropriate to study already collected samples or conduct research that involves modeling or literature studies.

There are many reasons for involving our non-traditional students in research. Of highest importance, we feel that students doing research learn the excitement of discovery and learn real-life problem-solving skills that will be useful in their future careers in graduate school, in industry, or whatever field they eventually go into.

Other instances of doing undergraduate research with students with disabilities can be found in the references listed below by Manske (University of St. Thomas) and Puglia (Central Arizona College).

Using Undergraduate Research in the Classroom to Reach Under-Represented and Non-Traditonal Students

Using research projects with a local importance can lead to placing students in a familiar context. These can be outside the classroom research projects or in-class projects. A good example of a research infused classroom activity especially geared toward non-traditional and under-represented students in an urban environment shows how these types of research can reach this important population of students.


There are successful strategies for the recruitment of students from under-represented populations. Perhaps the best place to start is the Institute for Broadening Participation's website Pathways to Science. Within this site, there is an excellent list of Recruitment Strategies .

For specific links to geoscience organizations associated with under-represented students see:


Foertsch, Julie, Alexander, Baine B., and Penberthy, Deborah, 2000, Summer Research Opportunity Programs (SROPs) for Minority Undergraduates: A Longitudinal Study of Program Outcomes, 1986 – 1996: CUR Quarterly, vol. 20, no. 3, p. 114 – 119.
Gregerman, Sandra, 1999, Improving the Academic Success of Diverse Students through Undergraduate Research: CUR Quarterly, vol. 20, no. 2, p. 54 – 59.

Ishiyama, John, 2001, Undergraduate Research and the Success of First-Generation, Low-Income College Students: CUR Quarterly, vol. 22, no. 1, p. 36 – 41.
Longtime, Craig and Jones, Megan, 2011, The Crossroads of U.S. Demographics and Higher Education: A Tale of Disparate Futures: CUR Quarterly, vol 31, no. 3, p. 29 – 37.
Manske, Jill M., 2001, Students with Disabilities: Unique Challenges and Opportunities for Science and Math Programs: CUR Quarterly, vol. 22, no. 1, p. 27 – 31.
O'Connell, Suzanne, and Holmes, Mary Anne, 2011, Obstacles to the recruitment of minorities into the geosciences: A call to action: GSA Today, v. 21, no. 6, p. 52 – 54.
Puglia, Mary L., 2001, Laboratory Experiences and the Vision-Impaired Student: A Personal Journey: CUR Quarterly, vol. 22, no. 1, p. 32 - 35.
Shuster, R.D., Maher, H.D. Jr., Engelmann, G.F., and Shroder, J.F. Jr., 1999, Undergraduate Research and the Non-Traditional Student: Special Challenges and Special Opportunities: Geol. Soc. America, Abstracts with Programs, v. 31, no. 7, p. A-318.