Feb. 23, 2017


New Report Examines the Impact of Undergraduate Research Experiences for STEM Students

WASHINGTON – The call for expanding undergraduates’ access to research experiences in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) raises questions about their use and potential to increase students’ interest and persistence in these disciplines. A new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine examines the evidence on undergraduate research experiences (UREs) and recommends more well-designed research to gain a deeper understanding of how these experiences affect different students and to examine the aspects of UREs that are most beneficial. 

The report looks at the rapidly evolving types of UREs and their complexity in terms of content; context; the diversity of the student participants, including the educational pathways of those students; and the opportunities they provide for learning.  The committee that conducted the study and wrote the report found there are many unanswered questions about the role of UREs in undergraduate learning and the mechanisms by which these experiences might support various student, faculty, and institutional goals.  

The traditional model of a URE is a student working with a faculty member on a research project, but UREs have expanded to include course-based experiences, internships and co-op positions, as well as “wrap-around” programs, which may offer combinations of mentoring, courses in study skills, and courses in research approaches and ethics.  These experiences differ in leadership, mentoring, format, and duration.  They also vary in expectations for students; the value for career trajectory, goals, and outcome measures; and the populations served.  Institutional support, disciplinary and multidisciplinary expectations, and faculty motivation and rewards also differ.

“These experiences have the potential to transform the way students perceive and understand what they are learning and how it is applied in real-world situations,” said committee chair James Gentile, Emeritus Herrick Professor and former dean for the natural and applied sciences at Hope College in Holland, Michigan.  “Course-based UREs could be important as well for students who do not move on to STEM-based careers.  Such students might gain an enhanced understanding of the research enterprise, which would help them to better understand the complexities of real-world problems such as disease causation and treatments, or the potential effects of human activities on the world's climate.”

The committee developed a framework for designers, researchers, and evaluators to organize their ideas about and analyses of UREs.  The first part of the framework articulates the goals for students participating in UREs -- increasing retention of students in STEM; promoting STEM disciplinary knowledge and practices; and integrating students into STEM culture -- and examines how these goals are related to different features of UREs.  It also outlines principles to consider in designing UREs: making STEM research accessible and relevant, promoting autonomy, helping students learn from each other, and supporting students’ reflection and reasoning.  The goals and principles serve to deepen students’ understanding of important concepts and the research process.  The second part of the framework looks at ways that national and state policies, institutional culture, and disciplinary expectations can affect the climate in which UREs are developed and implemented.

Data on the number and types of UREs offered have not been collected systematically, the report says.  Institutions should collect data on student participation to inform their planning and look for opportunities to improve the quality of and access to UREs.  Administrators and faculty should work to develop strong and sustainable partnerships within and between institutions and with educational and professional societies to share resources to facilitate the creation of sustainable URE programs. 

Research on the efficacy of UREs is still in the early stages of development, the report notes.  Well-designed studies are needed to examine the various types of UREs and their characteristics in order to gather evidence on what makes UREs effective.  The committee recommended more research on the problems that designers and implementers of URE programs often encounter.  The design process should examine the goals of the campus, program, faculty, and students, as well as consider the available resources, and how the program or experience will be evaluated or studied.  These aspects should be considered in the initial design of a URE and, at the same time, a process should be developed that allows for continuous efforts to improve the URE based on new information and evidence. 

The study was sponsored by the National Science Foundation.  The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine are private, nonprofit institutions that provide independent, objective analysis and advice to the nation to solve complex problems and inform public policy decisions related to science, technology, and medicine.  The Academies operate under an 1863 congressional charter to the National Academy of Sciences, signed by President Lincoln.  For more information, visit http://national-academies.org.  A committee roster follows.


Jennifer Burris Olson, Media Consultant
Joshua Blatt, Media Assistant
Office of News and Public Information
202-334-2138; e-mail news@nas.edu

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Copies of Undergraduate Research Experiences for STEM Students: Successes, Challenges, and Opportunities are available from the National Academies Press on the Internet at http://www.nap.edu or by calling 202-334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242.  Reporters may obtain a copy from the Office of News and Public Information (contacts listed above).


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Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education
Board on Science Education

Committee on Strengthening Research Experiences for Undergraduate STEM Students

James M. Gentile (chair)
Emeritus Dean
Hope College
Holland, Mich.

Ann Beheler
Executive Director
Emerging Technology Grants
Collin College
McKinney, Texas

Janet Branchaw
Assistant Professor
Department of Kinesiology, and
Wisconsin Institute of Science and Community Engagement
University of Wisconsin

Deborah F. Carter
Associate Professor
Department of Higher Education
Claremont Graduate University
Claremont, Calif.

Melanie Cooper
Lappan-Phillips Professor of Science Education
Michigan State University
East Lansing

Edward Coyle
John B. Peatman Distinguished Professor
School of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and
Arbutus Center for the Integration of Research and Education
Georgia Institute of Technology

Sarah C.R. Elgin
Viktor Hamburger Professor of Arts and Sciences;
Department of Biology; and
HHMI Professor of Genetics and Education
Washington University
St. Louis

Mica Estrada
Assistant Professor
Institute for Health Aging
University of California
San Francisco

Eli Fromm1
Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and
Roy A. Brothers University Professor
Educational Research and Development
Drexel University

Ralph Garruto2
Research Professor of Biomedical Anthropology
Binghamton University
Binghamton, N.Y.

Eric Grodsky
Department of Sociology
Center for Demography and Ecology
University of Wisconsin

James Hewlett
Executive Director
Community College Undergraduate Research Initiative, and
Director of Biotechnology and Biomanufacturing
Finger Lakes Community College
Canandaigua, N.Y.

Laird Kramer
Department of Physics, and
STEM Transformational Institute
Florida International University

Marcia C. Linn
Professor of Development and Cognition
Graduate School of Education
University of California

Linda Reinen
Associate Professor of Geology
Pomona College
Claremont, Calif.

Heather Thiry
Research Associate
Ethnography and Evaluation Research Center
University of Colorado


Kerry A. Brenner
Staff Officer

1 Member, National Academy of Engineering
2 Member, National Academy of Sciences