Undergraduate Research Engagement at Major US Research Universities, by John Aubrey Douglass and Chun-Mei Zhao


Bolstered by the recommendations of the 1998 Boyer Report, US federal agencies have put significant resources into promoting opportunities for undergraduates to engage in research. American universities and colleges have been creating support programs and curricular opportunities intended to create a “culture of undergraduate research.” Yet our knowledge about the commonality of undergraduate research engagement—how it integrates into the educational experience, and its benefits or lack thereof—is still very limited. Universities exude the ideal of a pivotal link of teaching and research. We have assumed that personal interactions between active scholars and undergraduates—via traditional curriculum, research courses, working in a lab or doing fieldwork—have positive influences on students’ maturation and their overall academic and social experience. The following exploratory study looks at data generated by the 2010 Student Experience in the Research University (SERU) undergraduate survey, an online census administered at fifteen major research-intensive universities. Among this specific case study of mostly AAU campuses, there is evidence that undergraduate research engagement outside of the traditional classroom is a relatively common experience. Further, this research engagement leads to self-reported learning gains across many areas, but especially in the areas of field knowledge, how to present and communicate knowledge, research skills, higher levels of satisfaction about educational experiences, better use of time, and higher levels of non-quantitative skills. Yet not all research activities are created equally. This study identified two different types of research: those research activities that mainly involve assisting faculty research, and those that mainly involve conducting independent personal research. The former is more prevalent in STEM fields, while the latter is more likely in the humanities, social sciences, and in professional majors. Further, lower-division students also tend to participate in assisting faculty research more often than their upper-division peers, who are more likely to engage in independent research. As part of the ongoing SERU research agenda, we hope to generate a more extensive analysis of SERU data and other data sources. We suggest that SERU campuses consider amending their current curricular requirements based on the following recommendations resulting from this investigation: 1. use the SERU database to provide regular reports on undergraduate research engagement, and include those reports in Academic Program/Department reviews; 2. expand existing efforts so that most, if not all, undergraduates have the opportunity for two or more non-classroom forms of research engagement, perhaps depending on the field of the major and discipline.

Publication date: 
November 1, 2013
Publication type: 
Research and Occasional Papers Series (ROPS)