By Prof. Elie Badr | Vice President for Academic Affairs, Notre Dame University-Louaize, Lebanon
Faculty members and academic administrators have long contemplated whether undergraduate research is useful for advancing student knowledge at this stage of their academic career or not, and also whether the benefits are significantly geared toward the professor or not.
There is no doubt that attaining research experience early on and more often greatly enriches the undergraduate experience. Recently, this learning tool has been demonstrated empirically and discussed at length in a variety of disciplines.
While the benefits of undergraduate research are numerous and far reaching, however, academicians are often torn between balancing the benefits of undergraduate research and those pertaining to applied skills, such as design, laboratory work, hands-on projects, and the like. In some cases, accreditation associations, specifically those pertaining to professional fields, would opt for the latter rather than the former.
How does undergraduate researcher experience benefit the student?
First, a direct benefit of research starts in the classroom. It is one thing to describe a phenomena and lecture about it, but it is another to formulate hypotheses and start investigating solutions, underlying theorems and constraints, data, and other prerequisite information to tackle the problem. While performing these activities, the student breadth and width of knowledge is immensely expanding. Not only that, performing research activities at the undergraduate level is the first training exercise toward equipping the student with lifelong learning skills. On that note, lifelong learning can instill creativity, initiative, and responsiveness in students; thereby, enabling them to show adaptability in post-tertiary education demands related to the industry and careers. Additionally, undergraduate research can provide students with a continuing source of one-on-one mentorship, which is otherwise occasional in the undergraduate curriculum.
Undergraduate research will enhance the student’s critical and independent thinking, communication skills, creativity, and problem-solving skills. In addition, undergraduate research helps students engage in the creation of new knowledge on the cutting edge of an academic discipline and apply that knowledge to real-world problems. Through exposure to research as undergraduates, many students discover their passion for research and continue on to graduate studies and faculty positions.
Another great benefit of undergraduate research is introducing the student to collaborative learning and teamwork, which is often more difficult to teach in the undergraduate curriculum. Research is often performed in teams, and one must learn how to interact and collaborate with team members to yield results. The benefits of teamwork experience amplify if the research topic is interdisciplinary in nature. The nature of research today is such that interdisciplinary teams are becoming the norm, and gaining firsthand experience in teamwork should be promoted in the undergraduate education.
Does undergraduate research benefit the professor?
Definitely! In fact, when I was preparing for my promotions in rank and tenure, I can safely say that I produced a number of publications based on work done with undergraduate students. This was partly out of necessity since my department did not have a graduate program at the time when I joined nor did it have a faculty in my area of expertise, so I had to work with the available “human resources”. I also did it because I actually enjoyed working with undergrads as much as I did with more senior researchers and faculty colleagues. Producing quality research and publishing with undergraduates is more challenging than doing so with graduate students and faculty colleagues. Undergraduate students require closer supervision and more follow up than their graduate counterparts. In many instances, the time to produce results took much longer than it should have, but the rewards were extravagant!
When faculty members use the term “research” with undergraduates, they often mean two distinct things: mundane, “blue color” work, which is often translated into "build me a code” or “run this test for me;” and actual research, as in work on a topic, investigate and produce credible results (in my case theoretical and experiential solid mechanics and fatigue of metals subject matters).
When I speak of undergraduate research, I mean the latter: the kind where novelty transpires, papers get published, etc. I can safely say that working with undergraduate students on research gave me the personal satisfaction of helping students to grow and develop professionally. I also experienced professional and intellectual growth as a result of supervising undergraduate researchers. Although working with undergrads yields slower rates of progress, undergraduate students bring vigor and passion to the research process. Showcasing my students’ research at conferences brought me even greater satisfaction than the publishing my own single-author papers; journal papers! In addition, engaging undergraduate students in research made me a better professor since the results and findings of these types of research often found their way into my classroom lectures.