Customizing an Undergraduate Research Project to the Students’ Interests

Why do I love doing research with undergraduates? It is a lot of FUN. I teach at a comprehensive four-year university.  Our main focus is on teaching.  We carry a large teaching load.  We teach our own lab sections, and grade our own exams with no graduate teaching assistants. Despite all that, we still find the time and energy to do research with our students.

How do I recruit undergraduate students in my research group? I show them just how much fun research can be.

Undergraduate research is highly encouraged at our university.  The students can apply for up to $500.00 per year for project-related expenses.  They present at the National Conference of Undergraduate research (NCUR) as part of being funded by the Undergraduate Research Program (URP).

I teach geology.  Four undergraduate students are currently in my research group, working on three different projects funded by the URP.  The most recent research project for our team got its inspiration from the “do-it-yourself” lava flow project at the Syracuse University, NY.  It took a student majoring in math and geology, an art major, and a couple brainstorming sessions to come up with a proposal.

The project is relatively simple: we will design and build a furnace for melting basaltic rocks, and pour the melt on the ground.  We will study how the melt flows and cools and how the viscosity changes with cooling and the original chemistry of the rock. The math major plans to create a mathematical model showing how the flow rate and the cooling rate of the melt are related. The art major plans to create lava sculptures.

For me, the best part of this project is its exploratory and collaborative nature.  The students are not participating in a research project designed by me: they designed it themselves with my input. They are not just collecting data, they are planning what data to collect, how to collect them, and how to analyze and synthesize the collected data to develop a meaningful story.  They are junior partners in this venture, not assistants.

I will be the first to agree that this approach is not without significant risks.  The chance of things going wrong is quite high.  We have very little idea what kind of challenges we might face, let alone how to face them.  But the high risk of failure has somehow added to the enthusiasm of the students instead of turning them off.  They like thinking of themselves as trailblazers, going where no one has gone before.
I cherish this spirit of innovation and exploration in my undergraduate students.  They remind me why I love my discipline.  What makes the long hours spent in front of the computer, in the lab, or out in the field, worthwhile.  They also challenge my long-held preconceptions.  They keep me honest.

We will learn the results of the undergraduate grant proposal competition within a week or so.  Depending on whether we get funded, we plan to start work on our furnace by the end of this month.  I will write about the project as it unfolds.

What do you think of this approach? Have you tried customizing an undergraduate research project to the students’ interests, instead of having students become part of your own research agenda? What worked and what didn’t work for you?

Dr. Prajukti Bhattacharyya is an associate professor in the Department of Geography and Geology at University of Wisconsin, Whitewater. She teaches introductory and upper-level geology courses for both majors and non-majors. Her undergraduate research activities span a wide variety of topics, not necessarily always related to her primary field of expertise. Her blog will address the benefits, challenges, and deliverable outcomes of designing meaningful multidisciplinary research projects in collaboration with undergraduate students.

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