Initial Publication Date: May 11, 2015

Honing a Healthy Disregard for the Impossible: Undergraduate Research in the First Two Years of College

Niccole Villa Cerveny, Mesa Community College

Undergraduate research (UGR) opportunities have been identified as a high-impact practice toward student engagement, retention, completion, and education (Kuh 2008). Yet my experiences facilitating Council on Undergraduate Research (CUR) workshops to institutionalize UGR reveal that the methodology of inquiry-based learning in authentic research projects is largely underutilized with undergraduates, particularly those in their first or second year. The primary barriers for faculty to engage first- and second-year college students in undergraduate research projects center around time, resources, and institutional support (Hewlett 2009). What are freshman- or sophomore- appropriate undergraduate research projects anyway? How much do they cost in terms of time and resources? How can you gain adequate institutional support?

Considering that first- and second-year college students have most likely not been enveloped in the paradigms of geoscience thought and theory, it is appropriate to first identify the undergraduate skills that should be mastered in order to build a solid foundation for future geoscientists. Surprisingly, many of these skills are universal to all science disciplines and do not necessitate great depth of content exposure to get started. (See Figure 1). In fact, students who are exposed to hands-on research opportunities are more likely to dive into the content, as content is perceived to have more value and context (Russell, et al 2007). Additionally, students who are involved in UGR are more likely to complete their undergraduate educations. And students from departments that are strong in research and teaching demonstrate the highest intellectual growth (Crowe 2007).

Faculty teaching introductory-level courses, particularly lecturers at four-year colleges or universities and community college faculty, carry such high teaching loads that there isn't much time left for meaningful mentorship in research. Consequently most undergraduates do not experience UGR opportunities until they are in their third or fourth year, where their grasp of content is better and some aspects of their projects can be completed without direct faculty supervision. Yet early exposure to UGR experiences benefit students and STEM fields through the positive impacts on student retention and completion, the engagement of underrepresented students in science, and the preparedness of the geoscience workforce (Hathaway, Nagda, et al 2002). Therefore, we should engage in UGR pedagogy as soon as possible in a student's academic experience.

Students need to have opportunities to learn the culture and norms of the discipline along with the science or disciplinary content of the project. Unfortunately, many non-research-based institutions of higher learning are not equipped with cutting edge technology within the discipline. Remember that your goals for engaging students in these high impact activities are for the development of the student and not directly related to the research reputation of an institution. Considering again the list of undergraduate skills for first- and second-year students in Figure 1, what kind of equipment do you already have access to for completing a meaningful research experience with your students? Likewise, careful consideration of the supplies necessary for a high quality experience for your students require creative repurposing and surprising collaborations throughout your campus. Even though budgets are constrained and literature resources can be scarce, librarians on college campuses are eager to help both students and faculty with research resources. Finally, teaching faculty can accomplish an amazing amount of UGR experiences with small, locally based grants. Larger, national-scale grants also recognize the value of early engagement of undergraduate students in research. Consequently, there are numerous grants specifically awarded toward undergraduate research proposals.

Institutional support can truly ease a professor's ability to engage students in UGR. Often, simply recognizing that faculty are actively mentoring students and acknowledging the effort is a key step for administrations to demonstrate the support for high impact practices at the college. As institutions turn their focus toward outcomes, retention, and completion, they become aware that the development of research skills also develops critical academic skills. Literature shows that students from diverse backgrounds do not identify with the academic mission of the institution and/or are not made to feel welcome in the same way that "majority" students do (Derting and Ebert-May 2010). Close contact with faculty outside the classroom, as often happens in research projects, is key to retention of diverse students. Invitation to participate in faculty research is a non-remedial approach to student retention with high expectations for student academic success. And an invitation to participate in research sends a message to students that they belong in this field or discipline. Additionally, close contact with diverse students outside the classroom provides an important education to faculty about the value of diversity and unique barriers that affect students from different backgrounds.


We can harness the powerful impact that undergraduate research has on learners in such a way that more students can experience it more often by integrating common research skills into the curriculum of first- and second-year courses. In this way, students will develop these skills at the foundational level for all fields. In a recent poll of employers, 93 percent said that a candidate's undergraduate major was less significant than a candidate's ability to communicate effectively and apply knowledge to real-world problem solving (Hart 2013). Yet the 2010 report from the National Academy of Sciences shows the United States continuing to fall behind in job creation and preparedness for a more STEM-driven global economy. It is our obligation to help the future geoscience workforce by making undergraduate research opportunities available and overcoming the habitual barriers. We must continually develop a healthy disregard for the impossible, helping students define their learning goals and assisting them in achieving them.


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Kuh, G. D. Excerpt from High-Impact Educational Practices: What They Are, Who Has Access to Them, and Why They Matter. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2008.

Members of 2005 Rising Above Gathering Storm Committee. Rising Above the Gathering Storm, Revisited. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2010.

Russell, S., M. Hancock, and J. McCullough. "Benefits of Undergraduate Research Experiences." Science, 316 (2007): 548-549