The Importance and Value of Mentoring Undergraduates
Mentors play a significant role in providing intellectual stimulation for their student protégés. Through working together on a research project of mutual interest, students become colleagues with their mentors and other members of the research group. Sometimes these relationships last long after the student completes his or her degree and ultimately develop into strong professional interactions.
Students learn first-hand the nature of science or engineering. They apply what they have learned in the classroom to real-world problems at the forefront of science and technology. They have (perhaps for the first time) the opportunity to ask new questions, solve unsolved problems, or develop new devices or processes. They learn to work with the ambiguity brought by not knowing the next steps or one question leading to many new questions.
Undergraduate research is an apprenticeship. The mentor teaches through example and coaching, and students learn by doing. Delving into a problem and exploring the unknown provide the best learning environment for most students. Students develop critical thinking and analytical skills. As they take intellectual ownership of a project, they often develop the ability to make research decisions, learn the questions to ask, and gain the confidence to ask questions.
Mentors train the next generation of scientists and engineers. As students are immersed in their projects, they are socialized into the culture of the organization and the discipline, and they sink their roots in the research environment. They become fluent in the language and concepts of the field through informal interactions and formal presentations-the ones they hear and the ones they give. They absorb the ethics and practices of the discipline, and they learn the laboratory methods and skills necessary to carry out research in the field. Instilling the importance of professional ethics is a very valuable trait that mentors can provide to students.
Students gain important insight into the kinds of careers they want to pursue through their undergraduate research experiences, and mentors play a key role by providing advice, making observations, and giving feedback. The undergraduate research experience often recruits students to a science or engineering research career, sometimes for students who might not have chosen the field. Conversely, sometimes students who were convinced they wanted to pursue a research career determine that research is not for them. It may be considered a great success when a student gains such personal insight before he or she has invested several years in graduate school.
Students also have the opportunity to choose from the different kinds of research conducted at the various NASA Centers. For example, some Centers concentrate on traditional lab-based scientific experimentation, while others investigate more applied, field-based engineering questions, while still others examine NASA operational issues. Additionally, undergraduate research is an important credential that students can include on their resumes. The recommendations they get from their research mentors will be very important as they apply for graduate or professional school or seek jobs in industry or at the NASA centers.
Mentors gain personal satisfaction from working with students. They often enjoy training the next generation, watching a student mature intellectually, and knowing that they played an integral part in that process. Students often bring a fresh perspective to the work because they have not been deeply immersed in it and have not developed biases about what should or should not happen. They often ask "why?" and sometimes that is an important question that causes others to review current thinking.