Why Student Research is More Important Than Ever
Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of blog posts about undergraduate research.
Jennifer Mook is a professor of biology.
Over the last several years, many faculty have discussed the challenges faced by our growing cohort of Gen Z students. We want to know how we can reach our students in order to better prepare them for “the real world” after college. Gen Z students grew up with technology in their hands, literally from birth. Unlike their Gen Y (millennial) counterparts who were often micromanaged by parents, these Gen Z students are known for being independent despite their dependence on technology. It is no secret that these younger students are socially interconnected, typically through social media. These students expect to be actively engaged in the learning process. As a faculty member in the STEM disciplines, where the large amount of content that we must cover in our courses makes “active learning” formats a challenge in the classroom, I engage in regular discussions on how we can “reach” our students the best. Thinking of this challenge helps me realize why, now more than ever, all of our students, regardless of major or age, need undergraduate research, and how we as faculty can benefit from the UNG Center for Undergraduate Research and Creative Activities (CURCA). I feel undergraduate research experiences and internships should be vital components of the learning experience for our students. No other active learning technique deployed within the classroom itself can match the hands-on learning that students get during research and internships.
I certainly benefited from undergraduate research experiences during my time at Penn State. As a first-generation college student, I felt relatively prepared for the expectations of college because of the Upward Bound program I had been lucky enough to participate in as a high-school student. I knew how to plan for studying and how to use the various techniques of note taking. However, the program did not really help me figure out what I would do with a degree once I got it. I qualified for work study funding, which permitted me to work with faculty members helping them do their research. Now, I didn’t attend the main campus of Penn State, with its super competitive, first-rate labs. I was actually at a smaller branch campus that is about half the size of our Dahlonega or Gainesville campuses, so my faculty mentors were involved in smaller projects. One was vacuuming emerging insects transitioning from aquatic larval forms to flying adult forms within a tent set up over a very cold early-spring stream. Another was examining and counting byssal thread attachments on plastics from a non-native, invasive species of freshwater mussel, the Zebra mussel. My crowning glory was analyzing the biochemistry of how a white wood-rot fungus alters hydrocarbons to better understand bioremediation under the tutelage of a chemist who studied the aroma of wine and regularly had boxes of wines shipped to her office Although I may be discussing biology and chemistry, what is important is that I had a variety of experiences under the guidance of mentors within my field. I had two different mentors, one an extremely energetic biologist and one a very entertaining, slightly eccentric British chemist. I experienced data collection procedures for three very different types of data. I was able to have conversations in these different fields and read papers related to all three. Ultimately, I presented results at a national conference. I was doing more than just “doing the lab” as part of a course; I was having to be accurate, accountable, versatile, and reliable to meet the expectations of my mentor, which were similar to those of an employer. I learned how to communicate in my field and with mentors of notably different disciplines and nationalities, which is what students may have to do with diverse colleagues in their workplace. I learned what I liked about each project, and also, maybe more importantly, what I didn’t like. This is important because I have had advisees that have no clue what their “dream” job will actually entail. For example, they may think they love lab work, but they don’t realize they may be performing repetitious actions for hours in a windowless room. Having real world experiences within their field will enable them to make better decisions for their own future.
I believe these active learning moments are exactly what our students need today. We recognize that these students may be even more educated in many ways than the Baby Boomers and the Gen Xers (like me) were when we graduated from high school. However, after two decades of interacting with students as a teacher and an advisor, I think our students today need to really experience their field of choice to better understand what careers their major may lead them to. Having these hands-on experiences can allow them to see why we study the content in class and what we need to use it for. There is no better “active learning” than participating in the research experience, just like I did.
In addition to immersing them in the literature, introducing them to data collection, and honing their communication skills, I think research and internships can provide this generation with some additional learning opportunities that will prepare them for the work world. Working directly with a mentor, and often with a team of collaborating students, this generation has the opportunity to directly interact with others outside of social media platforms and electronic means of communication, such as texting and email. Although our world has become much more reliant on technology for reaching out to colleagues, it is also important for our students to acquire the ability to have professional interactions in a face-to-face environment. Through undergraduate research and internships, students can learn about workplace courtesy, professional dress, and communication styles as they participate in research and internship opportunities.
Most important, in my opinion, is that these opportunities can provide them with valuable experiences that enable them to find out what they are passionate about! Many of us came to college with pre-conceived ideas of “what we want to be” when we finish college: a doctor, a renowned journalist, a trendy author, a famous artist. What we generally didn’t have is a realistic view of what these dreams will entail or what other opportunities there are out there. We didn’t have an opportunity to really know if the reality could continue to feed our passion. THAT is what I think our students need today — good experiences to fully elucidate their passion.
Luckily for us, we have an extremely supportive UNG crew that can help our students have amazing undergraduate research experiences. CURCA works with all faculty and students, in all disciplines, to facilitate engaging research and creative experiences. For faculty, CURCA provides workshops and funding opportunities to support projects and encourage success. They understand that successful faculty will provide better opportunities for students. CURCA also provides workshops and funding opportunities for students, including travel grants, research funding, and information on how to apply for REUs – research opportunities at national and university labs beyond UNG. CURCA’s sister office, the Nationally Competitive Scholarships office, is also dedicated to helping students apply for nationally competitive scholarships, at which they have been notably successful!
I encourage all of my faculty peers to investigate how CURCA can help you be successful, so that we all can continue to actively engage our students in the activities that we love. I think these moments allow us to share our passion and provide the students an opportunity to find their own passion as well! It certainly can be one of the best parts of our jobs as educators!