Learning Through Research

Science in Solution: The Impact of Undergraduate Research on Student Learning

Authored by David Lopatto, Grinnell College
lopattoCoversmScience in Solution shifts the science education focus from alarms about the shortage of STEM workers to the professional and personal benefits of undergraduates engaging in research. The shift suggests that undergraduate research may be a generator of scientists from across diverse groups of students. Personal development is the deep outcome of a research experience from which career choices grow. These undergraduate research experiences benefit students across the science disciplines, having characteristic features that enable success. These features include good mentoring, student input, working in teams, optimal structuring and opportunities for communication. Research presented in the book documents the connection of these features to the benefits of undergraduate research. These benefits include career clarification, improvement of technical and research skills, and experience with communication and the larger scientific community. They also include a variety of personal benefits, including greater independence of work and thought, tolerance for obstacles, and growing self-confidence. These benefits are mediated by the student’s experience and time in school. Novice students report greater gains in lab skills and emotional maturity, while experienced students report greater gains in leadership and sense of accomplishment.
Programs dedicated to undergraduate research are costly in time and money. Evidence presented here, however, shows that the benefits of undergraduate research are preserved in "research-like" courses. Courses that include the search for new knowledge, student input into the research process, communication, and group work replicate the benefits of the research experience. This finding opens the way for the benefits of the research experience to be made more widely available to students.
The key feature that relates to the successful undergraduate research experience is mentoring. The teaching, coaching and modeling functions of the faculty member, post doc, graduate student or undergraduate peer are strongly related to student gains. Mentoring combines the talents of the researcher and teacher and may result in changes in the self-perception of the scientist. These changes, catalyzed by working with undergraduates, may in turn produce institutional transformation.