Tuesday, August 11, 2009

A Professor's Perspective on Undergraduate Research Experiences

Two weeks ago, my interview with Alison Flamm about the Fulbright application experience provided a student’s perspective on research opportunities.

For a different viewpoint, I interviewed Charles Umbanhower, Professor of Biology and Environmental Studies at St. Olaf College to get his perspective on working with undergraduate research assistants. Charles has worked with undergraduate research assistants for several years and has also acted as the Summer Research Director at St. Olaf.

1. Tell me briefly about your background working with undergraduate research assistants. How long have you been doing this? What types of projects have you worked on?

Have been working with undergrad research assistants for 18 years. Projects have ranged from lake sediment coring in places in Minnesota and as far away as Mongolia or northern Manitoba to projects on campus that have included imaging/web posting of historical journals and plant specimens, modeling of fire behavior and the flexural stiffness of twigs.

2. What do you enjoy most about working with student research assistants?

The questions they ask. Prompts me to reexamine assumptions. A lot like teaching this way. Also, this is great chance to know students at a personal level which helps me with my teaching.

3. What is most challenging about this type of experience?

Trying to encourage independence of thought/effort while at the same time wanting students to ask questions. A real challenge is when they "mess-up" and then trying to fix the problem.

4. Do you have any other comments or suggestions for professors or researchers who are considering taking on undergraduate assistants?

Expect excellence but also remember that most undergraduate assistants lack the experience/focus that colleagues/graduate students would bring to a project. Remember that the research is as much a teaching/learning experience as it is a research project. Be sure to give the student(s) a chance for creativity and in particular a chance to summarize/synthesize their work in form of a paper/talk/poster. Don't expect that supervising student researcher will mean you have to spend less time on particular project.

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