A new study highlights the importance of students, or even citizen scientists, engaging in the conceptualization phase of scientific research, and not just the lab work, data gathering and analysis phases. Encouraging students to read and write about scientific research papers and to come up with their own original research questions has never been more important.
In a study published in August 2016 in CBE Life Sciences Education, Medeva Ghee from Brown University and colleagues used data from student surveys to investigate how undergraduate research experiences affect students’ commitment to pursue research careers.
Summer undergraduate research programs expose students to research-based careers through hands-on experiences. These experiences have been shown to promote minority student persistence in research careers. Summer undergraduate research experiences, where students conduct research that they usually present as a poster or paper at the end of the summer, may equip students with greater confidence in their ability to conduct scientific research. Undergraduate research “attracts and retains talented students to careers in science, and acts as a pathway for minority students into science careers.”
“A substantial body of literature provides evidence that summer research experiences promote the development of critical research and communication skills and help clarify career paths (Lopatto 2004, 2007; Seymour et al., 2004).” – Ghee et al., 2016
But what exactly is it about undergraduate research experiences that promotes students’ persistence in STEM education and careers? This is the question that Ghee and colleagues address in their latest study. What aspects of these program are significantly associated with change in students’ research skills and career pathways, the researchers asked? They looked specifically at students’ self-efficacy, or students' belief in their ability to successfully perform scientific research tasks. Students with higher scientific research self-efficacy will tend to persist in research careers.
The study focused on 450 students from the Leadership Alliance's Summer Research Early Identification Program in 2013. The researchers measured students self-reported knowledge of several aspects of conducting research.
Following their summer research experiences, students’ expressed significant gains in knowledge of the overall research process, how to critically read and analyze text, how to prepare research reports, and how to gather and analyze data. They also expressed greater knowledge of career pathways and more frequent plans to pursue academic research careers (but not research careers outside of academia). Undergraduate research programs should focus more on teaching students more about non-academic research career pathways.
But by far the most interesting findings of the study relate to how certain aspects of the summer research experience affect plans to pursue a research career. Most strikingly, time spent gathering data, analyzing data, doing science lab work and preparing research posters/presentations translated into minimal benefits as far as students’ knowledge of research career pathways and plans to pursue research careers. Far more important were the quality of student mentoring, time spend in preparation for research and time spent in professional development. In terms of plans to pursue a research career inside or outside of academia, the strongest predictor was time the students’ spent preparing for their research projects. Research preparation activities include attending seminars, having small group discussions, participating in study groups, and reading and writing about research papers.
I asked Medeva Ghee to comment on these findings. Find my Q&A with her below.
Me: Your paper found prominently that research preparation activities boosted student self-efficacy more than lab work. Why do you think this is the case? Why is lab work not doing more to boost self-efficacy?
Medeva Ghee: The research preparation activities described in the article included activities that actively engaged students in scientific discussions with faculty and their peers. These activities help to shape students’ understanding of the research process and engage them in developing the research questions. In so doing, students are creating their scientific identity. While the lab work contributes to the development of student self-efficacy, our data suggest that participating in the conceptualization of the research project helps students to see themselves as researchers.
Me: What does this say about the importance of science communication as not just as a afterthought? Do you think students having to communicate (for example tweeting, writing blog posts, sharing pics of their methods, explaining research questions) in the early steps of a research project could help their research efficacy?
Medeva Ghee: Absolutely! The ability for students to grasp and articulate their research is a critical component in their development as researchers and knowledge contributors.
In addition to the research skills, our article points to the importance of professional development activities that strengthen students’ self-efficacy. One professional development activity we looked at was students presenting at the Leadership Alliance National Symposium. More than 70% of our students do oral presentations during this conference. They are presenting to their undergraduate peers representing a wide range of academic disciplines, including the humanities and social sciences, as well as graduate and post-graduate alumni of the Leadership Alliance summer program. This community of scholars creates an environment that allows students to affirm their identity as a researcher by communicating their science to a diverse audience and by being exposed to role models who come from similar academic and cultural backgrounds.
Me: Do you think these results might apply to citizen science, where citizens could feel more like scientists by contributing early in the scientific process and coming up with research questions versus just collecting data?
Medeva Ghee: You don't have to be a scientist to be curious and ask questions. When I talk to students about summer research opportunities, I start by challenging them to think about questions that haven't been answered with respect to various diseases or perspectives that are not discussed in mainstream media. After this discussion, I let them know that structured summer research opportunities will provide them with the skills to take a deeper dive in developing the questions and learning the methodology to address the questions.