Indiana University Research & Creative Activity

Undergraduate Issue

Volume 26 Number 2
Spring 2004

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Engaging Undergraduates

It's a sad fact.

Few undergraduates see education reflected in the interplay of knowledge and experience that comes from one-on-one contact. Seen in raw numbers, the realization is even more discouraging: by their senior years, 47 percent of students polled on more than 600 campuses in 2002 had never dealt with faculty members outside of class.

What makes this fact most surprising is that there is ample statistical evidence that undergraduates who take advantage of mentoring and undergraduate research opportunities are, generally speaking, better off.

In-depth evaluations of the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program at the University of Michigan (studies funded by the U.S. Department of Education and the National Science Foundation) have yielded dramatic data: Michigan UROP students have substantially lower attrition rates, higher GPAs, and increased self-confidence compared to peers not involved in undergraduate research. These results held true for all students involved in the program, but were particularly notable among African Americans and other underrepre-sented students.

Edward St. John, professor of education at Indiana University Bloomington and director of the newly formed Indiana Project on Academic Success, concurs. In a national study St. John recently conducted for the Gates Foundation, he finds clear evidence that "involvement in research has a substantial influence on the persistence, or continuous enrollment, of undergraduates."

The secret is engagement--not simply busy-ness, but being connected, committed. While many things--from extracurricular activities to student government to social organizations--may engage a student in his or her college experience, mentoring and research opportunities engage students in ways that usually have far-reaching effects on their short-term success and their long-term interests.

In Indiana, notes St. John, various analyses reveal that "there is a problem with students' engagement, or rather lack of engagement, in their fields of study." He notes that persisting through the second year of college often hinges on a student becoming involved in a major. Being engaged in inquiry or research, he says, offers students an excellent means to accomplish the "essential and core task" of connecting with a field of study.

According to George Kuh, director of the Center for Postsecondary Research at the IU School of Education, the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) shows that students who are most engaged with faculty and other institutional resources view their college experience as more rewarding. Kuh, also Chancellor's Professor of education at IUB, says fostering this kind of connection is crucial for an institution such as IU to be able to "reclaim the legacy of a research university," where the external image is truly connected to students' experiences.

The evidence about the effects of student engagement in research on faculty is equally compelling. Although Kuh admits to feeling a bit leery about the time commitment when he was asked to mentor a McNair Scholar several years ago, he found the experience "very refreshing." Not only did the student learn a great deal about research methodology and NSSE findings, but he brought to the project a perspective that Kuh hadn't previously considered--the unique issues faced by minority and first-generation students. Kuh's mentorship became a two-way street, in which both student and mentor learned. University of Michigan surveys confirm that faculty involved in the UROP gain a stronger appreciation of diversity within the university and a better understanding of barriers encountered by minority students.

At IU, undergraduates have varied opportunities to engage in research and creative work outside the classroom. Some programs, such as IU South Bend's Student/Mentor Academic Research Teams (SMART) and IUPUI's UROP, offer all undergraduate students the chance to apply for grants to fund research proposals and travel. Others, such as IUB's Wells Scholars or Science, Technology, and Research Scholars, promise qualified students ongoing close interaction with faculty as well as stipends for research and creative work. Still others, such as the McNair Scholars Program, facilitate the involvement of low-income, first-generation, and minority undergraduates in research experiences.

As director of the McNair Scholars Program, Cathi Eagan, assistant dean in the University Graduate School, has closely observed the impact of undergraduate involvement in research. Over the past nine years, the McNair Scholars Program has successfully placed 86 percent of its participants in graduate programs. The other 14 percent are engaged in research and fieldwork that will lead to graduate work. It is an astonishing success rate, and Eagan entirely credits the program's combination of mentoring, research, and support in the graduate application process. Given the success of programs such as the McNair and others, John Slattery, new dean of IU's Graduate School, hopes to spearhead new initiatives involving undergraduate research in semesters to come.

There is no question that personal engagement generally results in better educational experiences for both students and mentors. Well-funded initiatives open up a student's possibilities, as do faculty who are open to seeking out and encouraging students, whether from at-risk populations or not. The only real question is how a university's administrators, faculty, and students can best work together to make undergraduate research and creative projects central to the institution and available to all.

--Paul Karns