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A group of students and a professor meet in a research laboratory. All are wearing lab coats.

Undergraduate research can provide students with hands-on experience in a lab environment, as well as help them determine career opportunities they might not otherwise consider.

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Undergraduate research opportunities are one way to provide experiential learning in many disciplines, introducing learners to research methods under the supervision of a faculty member and providing experience for a résumé.

A 2021 study from the University of Central Florida found student researchers are more likely to have higher grade point averages and graduation rates, and higher matriculation into graduate school, as well as life skills such as analyzing literature critically, observing and collecting data and communication.

However, not every student has equal access to undergraduate research opportunities. The study found non-STEM students, transfer students and part-time students are less likely to participate in research compared to their peers.

To increase student participation in undergraduate research and boost skill development among student researchers, institutions have created innovative models of work. Here are seven examples.

Survey Says

Around three in 10 students say they are required to participate in undergraduate research, according to a winter 2023 Student Voice survey from Inside Higher Ed, and a slightly smaller number (27 percent) believe that undergraduate research should be required in their program.

Four-year students are more likely to say undergraduate research is required in their program (32 percent) compared to their two-year peers (15 percent).

First-year research opportunities—University of Missouri

Career exposure in the first year can help students feel confident about their paths throughout college and provide a head start in building their résumés.

Mizzou is known for its Interdisciplinary Plant Group that hosts research scholars exploring innovations in plant biology and a first-year program that provides young researchers a leg up in their work, giving them research time with more experienced researchers and mentorship.

FRIPS, short for Freshman Research in Plants, supports 10 to 15 students annually, who work alongside a faculty member and their research group on plant biology. Students also meet regularly with their FRIPS scholars cohort and gain professional development training.

Each student’s work is funded by grant dollars from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Graduates of FRIPS often go on to become Goldwater Scholars and NSF graduate research fellows. The program also creates a place of belonging and community for new students to the university.

Underrepresented minority students—Davidson College

Some students face systemic disadvantages in participating in co-curricular experiences because they may lack the social capital or be unfamiliar with the norms of higher ed to identify and participate in a faculty-led research experience.

At Davidson College in North Carolina, rising sophomores can participate in a four- to six-week summer intensive research fellowship program called RISE (Research in Science Experience). This program is designed for students from historically marginalized groups including low-income and first-generation students.

The goal of RISE is to equip students to take on larger, more intensive academic-year and summer experiences for later in their college career. Each student receives $2,500 in scholarships and funds to cover on-campus housing, which the college arranges for all participants.

Jacquelline Nyakunu, a rising junior at Davidson, spent the summer with chemistry professor Cindy Hauser researching hookah, studying the smoking of shisha and the chemical composition of the tobacco. Nyakunu wrote in a blog post that the experience taught her about her passion for chemistry, built her research skills and solidified her career path as a pre-medicine student.

Transfer students—University of California, Los Angeles

Transferring into a new institution can be a challenge for many students, and finding ways to get plugged in and connected to one’s field of interest can be just as hard.

UCLA offers an initiative exclusively for transfer students to both promote their academic success at the university and expose them to undergraduate research opportunities, the Transfer Research Entry Program (TREP).

To participate, each student must be an incoming transfer student with at least two years remaining at UCLA and be considering a career in research. Participants attend a one-week virtual bootcamp about research, which covers careers in research and how to write a cover letter and curriculum vitae. The program also provides networking opportunities for transfer students and academic survival skills for the transition to UCLA.

There’s no obligation to take a research role after the bootcamp, but students are encouraged to do so and given guidance on how to find their areas of interest, the application and interview process as well.

Financial support—University of Texas at El Paso

Financial need can be a barrier to participation for some students. The University of Texas at El Paso is a Hispanic Serving Institution (84 percent Hispanic), commuter school with a large population of Pell-eligible students (60 percent) and first-generation learners. Many students are working to support themselves and their families, explains Lourdes E. Echegoyen, director of the Campus Office of Undergraduate Research Initiatives.

As a result, UTEP staff realized a need to provide financial assistance through employment to give students high-impact activities.

University staff have identified grant funding from federal agencies, including the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Education, and private foundations.

Students can receive financial support through stipends or tuition scholarships. The university’s student employment program also provides employment positions for undergraduate researchers across disciplines.

“Generally, full time students are supported to conduct research during the academic year from 10 to 19 hours per week—depending on the program—thus allowing students to remain on campus and be mentored as research trainees,” Echegoyen says.

UTEP leaders have seen the benefits of undergraduate research on retention and persistence among students, with one program focused on biomedical research having a 98 percent retention rate among students across four years, compared to a 37 percent retention rate among their peers who did not participate.&

Community partnerships—Roosevelt University

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Roosevelt University in Chicago partnered with The Field Museum to digitize and analyze data collected at the museum. Visitors had measured specimens of liverworts, but the data needed to be sorted and inaccurate measurements eliminated from the set to be most useful to scientists.

Students wrote code to screen and clean the data, helping set the researchers up for success and teaching students firsthand about research processes in a remote setting.

Career development—Elon University

At Elon in North Carolina, returning students can participate in undergraduate research over the summer in between academic terms, funded by the university. While career readiness is a natural component of research experiences, leaders at the university wanted to bolster student skills beyond the laboratory, says Eric Hall, professor of exercise and director of undergraduate research at Elon.

Now, student researchers attend regular professional-development workshops that inform and establish career competencies. The workshops are co-led by other campus partners, including the writing center, career services, the fellowships office and librarians, Hall says.

For the 2024 session, workshops include a session on LinkedIn on how the fellowships office can support student goals, professional writing for graduate school and industry, and navigating academic publishing.

The new initiative is still being evaluated, with formal data collection underway, but anecdotal evidence from post-assessments shows students enjoy and learn from the experiences.

Research in the classroom—California State Polytechnic University, Pomona

Cal Poly Pomona leaders wanted to expose more learners to undergraduate research, understanding that first-generation, Pell-eligible or historically underserved students have lower access to research opportunities, says Winny Dong, faculty director for the office of undergraduate research.

Rather than asking students to squeeze an additional responsibility into their schedules, faculty members brought research to the classroom, embedding experiences into required general education courses.

The initiative makes it so all students are exposed to research and required to participate in some capacity, helping build their skills and pique interest for those who may consider a career in research.

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