Initial Publication Date: April 1, 2016

Grow an Undergraduate Research Program

Student-faculty collaborative research projects are rich opportunities for students to develop inquiry skills and build their identities as STEM scholars as they contribute to original research questions. Many students persist in STEM fields because of the ways that these faculty-mentored research projects transform their interest and motivation for their studies.

All of our Capstone schools offer opportunities for students to do in-depth faculty-mentored individual research projects. This is accomplished through experiences solely dedicated to research that fall outside of the regular curriculum (co-curricular experiences). Individualized experiences are commonly organized for the summer months but also may occur through participation in faculty lab groups during the academic year. These research-dedicated experiences can be engaged on-campus or off-campus. They can take place early in a student's career, in the middle of a curricular arc, or as a capstone experience. Some institutions have a traditional linear path, where early research training and experiences lead to a pinnacle experience.

Undergraduate research experiences have become a hallmark of science education at our schools because they enhance engagement of students with STEM fields and increase retention. Success of a summer research program can have a "snowball" effect, catalyzing changes and bringing external funding and internal engagement that improve science education broadly within an institution. Support needed to develop, implement, and assess undergraduate research programs is often garnered in stages, as described on the Resources page.

Barnard College
HHMI's long-term support for year-long research internships in Barnard faculty laboratories embedded this valuable activity in Barnard's science culture. The program has recently been expanded—with grants from other sources and dedicated endowment income—from 16–20 students per summer to 120 students per summer.

Key Elements of Successful Undergraduate Research Opportunities

A Complete Experience

Undergraduate research opportunities allow students to experience the full cycle of a research project, from development of the research question, through design, implementation and analysis, to discussion and publication of results. It is this full cycle that allows students to understand the nature of scientific research, the highs and lows of doing research, and how the large range of ideas and skills that they learn at different stages in their scientific career fit together. Publication of results can include making posters, writing abstracts, senior theses, and manuscripts for submission to professional journals. Presentation can take place through talks and posters at local, regional, national or international conferences or other venues that allow students to discuss their arguments and conclusions with others. Through this complete experience they can imagine themselves as scientists.

Swarthmore College
Nearly 100 students receive summer fellowship support to conduct full-time research each summer with Swarthmore faculty mentors. In parallel with their intensive research experiences, they participate in career workshops, seminars, and social activities for the summer science community. Many also serve as counselors for younger students in the Science for Kids summer program.
Smith College

Recent efforts at Smith have focused on expanding the principles of success from our Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship program to our classrooms, through course-based research experiences. With each, we offer students opportunities to engage in substantive faculty-mentored research resulting in meaningful scientific and student learning outcomes.

Hope College In the STEM disciplines, Hope has on average 130 students each summer doing research with faculty mentors. Some work collaboratively with one or more students, gaining not only research skills but life skills of working with and managing others. In addition to social activities, ethics training and resume writing workshops, Hope's summer research students further experience what it is like to work as a STEM professional by presenting their research departmentally to other research students and faculty at the end of the summer. Some students also have the opportunity to present their research at regional and national conferences. Each year in the spring, Hope hosts a celebration of undergraduate research conducted in all disciplines across campus, with students presenting research from summer research experiences as well as research embedded in courses throughout the academic year. With family and the surrounding community invited, students have the opportunity to present their research to others in their field as well as those with those who are novices to their field of study.


Undergraduate research opportunities are commonly built on an apprenticeship model, that is, the student works under the guidance of a mentor. The faculty mentor guides the student or group of students through a specific research project, which is often a problem that is closely associated with the faculty member's research and can take the form of a capstone research project, independent study, or summer research project. The mentors guide the students through the steps of scientific inquiry as they apply to a specific problem chosen by the student, coaching them when they need help finding the way forward or to see where additional attention is needed. Because the faculty mentor coaches students on a problem of the student's choosing, students can develop a strong sense of ownership and maximize the curiosity, engagement and passion they bring to the research question. Mentors also show the path to become a successful scientist.

Spelman College
Spelman's model (SMART program) develops closer interactions to advisors early in a student's career. Students are encouraged to have conversations with their mentors around expectations in and out of the lab, research interests that evolve as a result of their project, and next steps to help the student further his or her own interest through research or advanced academic programs.
Hope College

Hope's Hughes Research Scholar program has been an opportunity for one or more summer research students from each of the nine participating departments to meet over lunches throughout the summer to discuss mentoring and leadership issues. This program is intended to serve as a resource for students to develop leadership skills as well as offer support and reflection in mentoring other students and in their relationship with their faculty mentors. Students have found value in talking about their own research with a group of students spanning many disciplines, and considering communication techniques and diversity issues that help them understand and excel in their summer research experience. This experience often helps to solidify students' identity as future STEM professionals.

The specific example as an example of the general case

Students will only have one or a few opportunities to engage in undergraduate research. It is important that they have opportunities to reflect and discuss how their specific research experience relates to research more broadly as well as to the things that they have learned in courses. Not only does this help them develop a broader range of skills and ideas for solving the problem at hand, it allows them to appreciate how their experience is unique and where it is common. It provides a context in which they can identify aspects of scientific work that they may like or dislike specific to their chosen problem or common to any work they will undertake as scientists. Student presentations can be used to probe what students understand about the nature of their work.

CUNY Hunter College
The tenth-grade students who participate in the Research Techniques Facility Workshop create and give a PowerPoint presentation on a specific biological or chemical technique of their choice. The high school students who are summer research interns in Hunter College labs present their findings to their peers, teachers, and lab mates in a seminar at the end of the summer.

At the end of each summer, the undergraduate summer research interns and the undergraduate scholars give PowerPoint presentations of their research at a department-sponsored seminar. The Hunter Undergraduate Research Conference, sponsored by Science Mathematics Opportunities Network (SciMON), also provides a platform for students to present their work in either a 10-minute talk, or as a poster.

Student Outcomes

Career development

Students are introduced to a discipline and approach by doing hands-on research. They learn what it means to do scientific research and whether or not they like to do this. Through the process of conducting their research project they develop skills in designing, implementing, and managing a large project that are fundamental not only to science but to other careers as well. Our assessments of student-faculty research collaborations at our institutions show that these experiences are extremely effective at engaging students' interest in STEM and encouraging them to persist in the sciences. (See Hunter student outcomes for example.)

Smith College
A series of internal and external assessment reports on Smith's Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship program find strong student benefits and outcomes, including increased rates of advanced degrees and continuation in science careers.
Carleton College
Students who participate in Carleton's FOCUS program show very high levels of interest and excitement about science and math and cite research experiences as the most important factors in helping them feel confident in their ability to succeed in STEM majors.
Barnard College
All middle- and upper-level laboratory courses in Barnard's Biology Department require students to conduct an individual or group project that includes hypothesis development, experimental design and execution, statistical analysis of results, and written and/or oral reports.[end mediumsmall

The communication required to move a project forward and to convey and discuss project results requires the development of essential communication skills. Many Capstone Institutions provide support for students to present their research at local, regional, national, and in some cases even international scientific meetings. Several of our schools use speakers, seminars, and field trips to incorporate further opportunities for students to learn about scientific careers, opportunities, and grant writing into the summer research experience. Institutions such as Spelman and Swarthmore even prepare students for grant writing, with competitive student-developed research grant contests that award students funding for research opportunities.

Deepening and integrating learning

Research experiences allow students to understand how the knowledge and skills that they develop in classes apply to the work of a scientist. When students engage in research, they make use of what they have learned in the past, strengthening their understanding and building connections between experiences from different courses. Experimental strategies used or data derived vividly illustrate concepts taught in the classroom (Xavier). Data interpretation, analysis, and problem-solving skills are front and center, rapidly developing as they are essential to student success in the research. As they move forward after the research experience, students are better positioned to know not only how they may use what they are learning, but also to query the relationship between the ideas in class and the scientific research that allowed their development. They can understand how new learning fits into the bigger picture.

Exploration of a specialty

Diving deep into a research project provides a venue where students can learn specific techniques and the rationale behind them. In our institutions, this provides a venue for students to learn from faculty at levels of specialty above those appropriate for undergraduate courses. Students can travel to other campuses to tap into specialties not available on campus. In the context of undergraduate research on- or off-campus, learning can be customized to cater to students' interests, motivation and capabilities.

Spelman College
The Biomedical Summer Science Career Exploration Program (CEP) that took place each summer from 2009–2012 provided an opportunity for rising high school senior girls to learn more about research and career opportunities in the biomedical sciences. Program participants explored cancer through hands-on lab activities, scientific journal review, and interacting with cancer researchers and health care policy experts to get a comprehensive view of how cancer affects the community.

Confidence and Persistence

Giving students an opportunity to participate in research projects that matter to them helps students, especially those from groups traditionally underrepresented in STEM, to develop a STEM identity and imagine that they, too, can continue in STEM. This effect can be enhanced if students have opportunities to work with mentors like themselves. Presentations or posters (local, regional, or national) are a common final product. Swarthmore's honors thesis program includes external evaluation of student work, providing honors students with affirmation of the significance and quality of their scientific work. A local and relevant Praxis program at Bryn Mawr integrates theory and practice. Social activities such as summer teas, ice cream socials, joint group lab meetings, and journal clubs during the summer research period enhance students' sense of belonging and understanding of the collaborative nature of scientific research and practice.

Spelman College
The HHMI Research Associates Program (RAP) is an academic year program designed to support introductory research experiences for Spelman students who have had little or no prior research experience. Students select a research mentor either at Spelman or in the Atlanta area based on their research interests and the projects proposed by faculty mentors. Another biomedical research program offered at Spelman is the NIH-funded biomedical research training program RISE that involves a research development program and a summer training program (for younger students) on research techniques.
Barnard College
Barnard's internal surveys of ICP Research Interns, their comments on SURE and CURE surveys, and conversations years after they complete the program all suggest that the summer research experience solidifies their commitment to the further study of science and pursuit of a science career.
Smith College
At Smith, our Achieving Excellence in Mathematics, Engineering, and Science program works to provide research-mentored opportunities for students historically underrepresented in STEM through our Scholars, Early Research, and McKinley programs, with good effect.