Learning Through Research
Steve_McGuireMentoring students is first and foremost an educational activity. For most students, NASA-USRP will provide an introduction to research. It is important to give students projects of which they can take intellectual ownership, and the benchmark for a NASA-USRP project is the potential for publication in the refereed literature. Although many students do make significant contributions, students often are not able to achieve significant results in the short ten- or fifteen-week period.


Students participating in USRP are undergraduate, not graduate, students. Some are as capable as graduate students when they arrive; many are not. They generally will not have developed the skills and abilities of graduate students, and they may not have the knowledge base. However, they have the potential for learning and great enthusiasm for what they are doing. The USRP program seeks students who can rise to the challenge offered by their mentors. It is up to the mentors to set realistic goals for the project and then to work closely with the student until he or she can work more independently. 


If a mentor assumes that the student has more experience or knowledge than the student in fact does, the mentor may provide insufficient support in the beginning stages of the project. Students can become overwhelmed when they do not receive the support they need, and they often are reluctant to ask for assistance. If progress becomes very slow, and they are unsure of what they are doing, students may become discouraged. 


On the other hand, if a mentor expects too little of a student and does not provide the challenge, the student has nothing for which to reach. When mentors use students as an "extra pair of hands," students become bored or disillusioned with the work. In that case, the opportunity to stimulate the student has been lost. 


It takes time to mentor an undergraduate student. The interactions between mentor and protégé are critical to success. The mentor must ensure that he or she communicates frequently and clearly about the research and the expectations for outcomes. It takes time to teach the skills and techniques that students need to carry out the projects. Mentors must provide encouragement to persist when things don't work well, but the rewards mentors gain-personal satisfaction and getting work done-are worth it!