Council on Undergraduate Research

Goals and Opportunities for Mentoring

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Mason_D_MunroeMentoring an undergraduate in a research project has goals that reach beyond the accomplishment of quality science. Students learn how to do science, and mentors must impart the nature and structure of scientific inquiry. To that end, students must be given a project that engenders intellectual stimulation. It is easy to create projects for undergraduates that will be "successful" because they are based on the student doing "intellectual bottle washing"-menial, but necessary, tasks or performing a laboratory exercise that is not creating new knowledge or developing new ideas. 

Generating projects that are both intellectually challenging and readily accessible by an undergraduate requires a great deal of contemplation and planning. However, the success of the undergraduate's experience lies foremost in having a project that reflects the challenges of doing science, exploring nature, developing new devices and processes, and learning to deal with the frustrations and rewards that arise from thinking through a difficult or complex problem. Note that the student may be developing instrumentation that has not been used before; and while this activity may not be "new science," the same lessons can be learned.

Mentoring an undergraduate student in NASA-USRP provides a number of opportunities for projects that may not fit into the goals of a graduate student or postdoctoral project. The mentor has tremendous flexibility in choice of projects because the NASA-USRP pays its students. For example, an undergraduate could undertake a

  • Riskier project (not harder, just riskier): try a short project which, if it works, could be the basis for a larger study
  • Complementary study that might not otherwise have been done: can provide supplemental information, but might not be the basis of a graduate student's thesis or might make use of available high quality instrumentation
  • Shorter term goal: work that would not be sufficient for a thesis

The evolution of a good mentoring relationship starts with an investment of time by the mentor. Initially, the student will need a significant amount of direction and detail about the goals of the project, the methods suggested to tackle the problem, and the role of the project in the ongoing work. The first week or two is crucial to establishing the mentoring relationship and getting the project underway. This interaction provides meaning and motivation for the work and understanding of the mentor's expectations. As the student matures, the time commitment should lessen. The successful student will begin to take ownership of the project and suggest new means for solving the problem or new directions for the project to develop. A good mentor will allow the student to try new things that seem unlikely to work, but will guide the student back before the expense of time or money becomes too great. Sometimes, these forays into the abyss, and subsequent recovery, reflect the learning and thought processes required to do quality research.

At the end of the research experience, the mentor should have an interesting project well underway and the undergraduate should have learned what it is like to work on, but perhaps not solve, an interesting scientific or engineering problem. Some students come to research programs expecting to be "trained" and to have many social events. Certainly, training and socializing are aspects of any research program, but a student needs to understand up front that the main activity of a research experience is research!
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