Undergraduate Research in Geoscience at Penn State Brandywine

Information for this profile was provided by Laura Guertin, Associate Professor of Earth Sciences, Penn State Brandywine.

Departmental/Institutional Context

I teach at Penn State Brandywine in Media, PA, a commuter campus with no residential options located 20 miles outside of Philadelphia. My campus' primary mission is to serve as a 2+2 school in the Penn State system, where students complete the first two years of their major before transferring to another Penn State campus or other institution to finish their degrees. To satisfy the land grant mission of Penn State, my campus offers 10 four-year degrees, but the majority of our 1,600 students transfer for degree completion. We do not have any four-year degrees in science, and I am the only Earth scientist on campus. I teach introductory-level general education courses in geoscience, Earth science, and geography for non-science majors. I do not have a dedicated teaching lab, nor dedicated space to conduct research with students.

Research Program Description

The majors offered in Penn State's College of Earth & Mineral Sciences (EMS) are still "discovery" majors, and I do not see many students begin at Penn State Brandywine as geoscience or Earth science majors. In addition, first- and second-year students do not have the depth of content knowledge nor practice with field techniques to be able to conduct rigorous research to make significant contributions to the discipline. My approach is to work with students, no matter what their major interest, in developing knowledge and skills through undergraduate research. These skills are important and transferrable to whatever future career direction a student is heading. I conduct a range of inquiry-based projects with students in my courses that involve students generating their own hypotheses to test and project design. It is based on the results of these classroom projects that I will approach students to see if he/she is interested in an independent study project in a future semester. In the majority of cases, I allow the student to generate their own project, instead of joining on to a component of my research. I find students tend to want to engage in community-based projects, most likely because of the fact that my campus is a commuting student population that was born and raised in the region, and the students want to "give back" to their own communities.

Outcomes and Benefits

Although extremely few students that have completed an independent study with me have decided to pursue a geoscience major, some have enrolled in "extra" Earth science courses and pursued the Environmental Inquiry minor offered by the university. I see the overarching benefit as creating citizens that have a stronger background and understanding in science, increasing their literacy and preparation to critically examine news stories and reports. For students, I feel the strongest benefit is the confidence they gain by seeing a research project through to completion. Certainly, the skill sets are important for the student, but being able to describe and showcase a completed project to a future research adviser and/or employer is important. For myself, the strongest benefit is seeing the impact of learning on the student. I may not have a student project that results in a conference presentation or publication, but the student learning and excitement is the most reward I can receive.

I am currently completing my 12th year (as of 2013) at Penn State Brandywine. In my first 12 years, I have supervised 37 different students in 40 different independent study projects, and several more students in classroom-based research projects. I have had 38 student conference presentations, including the National Conferences on Undergraduate Research (NCUR), regional Geological Society of America (GSA) meetings, American Geophysical Union (AGU), and the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE). Students have traveled with me to Maryland, Washington DC, California, and Puerto Rico to give presentations. I have had 22 students as co-authors on peer-reviewed journal publications (12 publications total, with 6 having students as first authors). I have not assessed the student learning or perceived learning from engaging in undergraduate research, but documenting the numbers of students that see research through to completion in presenting and publishing research I believe demonstrates success for how I work with students.

Because the majority of the students from my campus transfer to another Penn State campus, I have been successful in maintaining contact with students that begin at Penn State Brandywine. Some students that have started doing research with me will continue to complete research at a distance (using online tools for collaboration) and/or engage in summer research projects. For example, I have been able to serve as the senior honors thesis advisor for a student doing an interdisciplinary research in science, technology and society. I have also had a student return to me every summer to engage in projects (she is a media studies major). This student is minoring in Environmental Inquiry, presented at AGU, and has a manuscript of her project in review. She will be going to graduate school in the fall for a science journalism degree.

I also spend time with my student researchers in reviewing how to develop a good project title, and how to write an abstract. I have every student write up a title and abstract at the conclusion of his/her project for his/her professional portfolio, and so that they have something to show a faculty member when they transfer campuses.

Challenges and Solutions

The biggest challenge I face is that with my position at my institution, I am required to present and publish every year. I need to carefully balance the time needed to mentor students with their projects versus ensuring I have the time to complete my own research. Unfortunately, in some semesters, I am not successful in maintaining that balance, and I let my own research "slide" to make sure the students are able to keep moving forward with their work. The students themselves can also be a challenge, as their lives are filled with challenges – balancing work and school, family obligations, lack of time, etc. I have found Skype and Google Hangouts a very effective tool in keeping communication going with my students, especially those that live far away from campus. Online communication tools keep us both engaged in the project and moving the project forward. With the lack of dedicated research space on campus, I cannot have students engage in laboratory-based work, which requires all student projects to be conducted outdoors or as projects that do not require equipment. But the interest students have towards community- and outreach-based projects overcomes the need for campus facilities to conduct the work. My campus has an annual undergraduate research symposium and offers an annual award to an outstanding undergraduate researcher and an outstanding undergraduate research faculty mentor, but I would still like to see more recognition given at the campus level to these student accomplishments.

Keys to Success

Success is difficult to define, because the environments and expectations are so different from student to student, for faculty member to faculty member, from institution to institution. For example, I would define "success" differently for a returning adult student that is a single mother of four versus a traditional-aged college student to a student currently on active duty with the military. The learning goals and objectives are different for each student, as they come from different stages in life and each have their own goals.

Lessons learned: (1) As a faculty mentor, do not use one model of advising for all students. Each student is unique and is coming to school for different reasons. Take the time to learn "who" your student researcher is, and what they are looking to get out of doing research, not just what your goals are; (2) You have to "sell" undergraduate research, and it is not an easy sell. Students do not have the confidence to do research, and/or do not see their peers involved in research, and/or do not realize the seriousness of the commitment to a project, and/or do not realize the value of the dissemination component. And this "sales pitch" will be different for each student and for each project.


Beckman, M. and N. Hensel (2009). Making explicit the implicit: defining undergraduate research. CUR Quarterly, 29(4): 40-43.
*I think the most informative and powerful part of this paper is the description of the various components and practices on undergraduate research viewed on a continua, not "one definition fits all."

Guertin, L.A. (2013). How New Technologies Advance Mentoring Practices with Non-Residential Undergraduate Researchers. Abstracts with Programs (Geological Society of America), 45(7): 364. https://gsa.confex.com/gsa/2013AM/webprogram/Paper233839.html

Guertin, L.A. and N. Cerveny (2012). Undergraduate research and the two-year college. In: J. Kinkead & L. Blockus (Eds.), Undergraduate Research Offices and Programs: Models and Practices. DC: Council on Undergraduate Research, 165-180.

Guertin, L.A. and I.E. Esparragoza (2009). Beginning undergraduate research experiences at the freshman and sophomore level at Penn State Brandywine. In: M.K. Boyd & J.L. Wesemann (Eds.), Broadening Participation in Undergraduate Research: Fostering Excellence and Enhancing the Impact. DC: Council on Undergraduate Research, 89-100.

Cejda, B. and N. Hensel (2009). Undergraduate research at community colleges. Council on Undergraduate Research. Available online: http://www.cur.org/urcc/

Perez, J.A. (2003). Undergraduate research at two-year colleges. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, No. 93. Published by Wiley. p . 69-77.