Building Success into a First-Semester Undergraduate Research Course
Deanna van Dijk, Calvin College
From 2011 to 2014, the First-Year Research in Earth Sciences (FYRES) project has engaged 81 firstsemester Calvin College students in research on Lake Michigan coastal dunes. The research experiences are substantive, as demonstrated by first-year student coauthors on 18 conference presentations and 17 research reports. Other measures of success are also important, such as high student satisfaction levels and increased numbers of students continuing in STEM fields.
How does the FYRES project create a successful first-semester undergraduate research experience? Many real challenges have been met by building a variety of support structures into the FYRES course.
Student success begins with attracting suitable students to the experience. "Suitable" is not defined by content knowledge (no prior knowledge is assumed) or disciplinary interest (both science and non-science students are welcome) but in terms of a basic level of interest and motivation for participating in a non-traditional science course. An online application process ensures that students have at least enough motivation to complete the application. Recruiting materials avoid specialized terms such as "geology" or "geography" which are unknown disciplines to many high school students. Course credit fulfilling a general education physical science requirement provides a recognizable value to participation for non-science students. Science-oriented students are attracted to the early opportunity to gain disciplinary experience and help with vocational decisions. Most students are attracted by the promise of hands-on learning and an atypical setting: the Lake Michigan coastal dunes.
Because no prior content knowledge or research skills are required for student participation, the course structure uses the five-hour lab periods, three class periods per week and assignments early in the semester to build the foundation for the substantial research project in the last half of the semester. The pre-research-project lab activities introduce students to different dune environments, methods, equipment, and data analysis. Dune content knowledge is built during classes that often refer to what students have experienced at the dunes. A short paper assignment has students finding and reading reputable sources about dune topics and practicing a scientific style of writing.
Utilizing FYRES Research Mentors meets two challenges of providing effective research experiences for a class of 24 first-year students. The Mentors make the field research and teaching logistically possible by driving vehicles and working with small groups of students at different sites. The Mentors also reduce the intimidation that first-year students may feel if asked to lead the research effort (Caristi and Gillman 2002). (The students may not realize that they are given increasing responsibility for making research decisions as the semester progresses.) A Mentor-student ratio of 1:4 (6 Mentors, 24 students) has worked effectively for the early-semester labs as well as the research teams. The Mentors are supported in their work by a two-day training session prior to the semester, guides to upcoming activities provided in advance, weekly one-hour group meetings, and individual mentoring from faculty as needed.
Because the semester length and student inexperience make it too difficult to include a written report, the FYRES Mentors continue the project work into the following semester. Typically, Mentors do additional reading and data analysis to ensure the research is complete. Mentors also prepare a research presentation for a regional conference. The first-year students are invited to attend the conference (actual participation varies by year) and each student receives a printed copy of the final research report.
The support structures built into the FYRES course are effective for enabling first-semester undergraduate students to complete a substantive geoscience research experience. Weekly journal entries and an exit questionnaire show student awareness of how much has been accomplished and what it means to be a geoscientist for a short time. Comments from students include "This course turned out to be the best class I took this semester. Initially I thought that I would not 'fit in' or be as enthusiastic as other students with environmental studies or science as their majors, but I'm pleased to say that I thoroughly enjoyed the class" and "I'm leaving this class feeling like I could see myself working somewhere in this field."
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First-Year Research in Earth Sciences (FYRES): Dunes: Retrieved in March 2015 at http://www.calvin.edu/go/FYRES/
van Dijk, D., 2014. Building Content Knowledge in a Student Research Team. Retrieved in March 2015 at http://serc.carleton.edu/NAGTWorkshops/undergraduate_research/workshop_2014/activities/85629.html