Undergraduate Research Program Spotlight: Grinnell College

Editor’s Introduction
As Editor-in-Chief, I believe that one of the principle roles that PURM can serve is to foster dialogue between mentors, administrators, and participants of undergraduate research at different institutions.  Each undergraduate research program is unique, and with such programmatic diversity comes a variety of successes, hardships, and solutions. I contend that providing a forum for these challenges and accomplishments is a critical step in the continued development of the broader undergraduate research community, as we have much to learn from both the successes and difficulties experienced by others.

To this end, PURM will occasionally feature Program Spotlights, which will focus on the undergraduate research program at a specific institution. I am pleased to introduce the inaugural Program Spotlight in this issue, which highlights the undergraduate research program at Grinnell College in Grinnell, Iowa, and features responses to a set of questions posed by the PURM editorial staff to several members of the Grinnell UR community.

Founded in 1846, Grinnell College is a selective, private, liberal arts college with a focus on the active scholarship of its faculty and students. Many of Grinnell’s academic programs offer a Mentored Advanced Project (MAP), which provides students with the opportunity to work closely with a faculty member on a creative, original, and scholarly work and to present this work to the broader scholarly community. Additional information about the Mentored Advanced Project (MAP) program at Grinnell can be found here. If you have questions for the Grinnell participants, please add a comment to the article.

It is my hope that in learning more about individual UR programs (such as Grinnell’s), PURM readers will take away useful ideas and information and will be inspired to incorporate this information into UR activities at their home institutions.

If you are interested in having your institution’s UR program featured in a future “Program Spotlight,” please contact me. If you’d like to ask the authors a question, please feel free to leave a comment on this article below.

Mathew Gendle
PURM Editor-in-Chief


Perspectives on Undergraduate Research and Mentoring at Grinnell College
Amanda Borson ’13, History
Kyle Espinosa ’12, Art
Kate Ingersoll ’13, Computer Science
Heather Lobban-Viravong, Associate Dean of the College and Associate Professor of English
Sarah Purcell ’92, Associate Professor of History and Director of the Rosenfield Program
Samuel Rebelsky, Professor of Computer Science
Lee Running, Assistant Professor of Art
Mark Schneider, Associate Dean of the College and Professor of Physics

From an administrative perspective, how is Grinnell’s Undergraduate Research program structured?
Although our students are able and do take advantage of conducting research at different levels in the curriculum, one of our more popular research programs is the Mentored Advanced Project (MAP). Students apply to do MAPs with a faculty member, who guides and mentors them through each stage of the research process. MAPs are funded by a special budget that is administered through the Dean’s office. We are working to make sure that the MAP program adequately takes disciplinary differences into account. It is important that all our faculty, regardless of discipline, feel supported as their students pursue advanced research under their guidance. (Heather Lobban-Viravong)

There is some variability in the degree to which projects are student-initiated. Sometimes a student has an idea and searches for a faculty mentor, and sometimes a faculty member looks for a student to take on some aspect of an ongoing project, with a continuum of variations in between. Students receive a stipend for work in the summer but not during the academic year. Faculty can receive either fractional course credit or cash compensation for supervising a MAP. Most work takes advantage of the MAP (which is a course designator) academic structure, with a few students using other independent-study categories or being involved without any academic credit. Time will tell if these less heavily used categories persist or gradually disappear. (Mark Schneider)

Our students value the experience of working closely with a faculty mentor. They also value the advanced nature of their projects because it prepares them for the rigors of doing academic work at the graduate and professional level. In some cases, our students work as part of a team or group, so I imagine they also value the opportunity to collaborate and share their work with one another. (Heather Lobban-Viravong)

We have strong participation, including advanced students down to even some students after their first year, and in a wide variety of disciplines (which we would like to make even more diverse). We provide support for students to do presentation at conferences (often national professional meetings). (Mark Schneider)

Whether it’s on campus or at a local or national conference, we expect our students to prepare their work for public presentation. In a few cases, students experience the joy of having their work published in an academic journal. (Heather Lobban-Viravong)

Both the strong mentoring relationships and, when it happens, the transformative experience of going to a professional meeting or publishing make these experiences “high-impact practices.” (Mark Schneider)

From a faculty and student perspective, what is the primary motivation for engaging in Undergraduate Research?
In terms of mentoring students, my principal motivation is to enhance their educational opportunities and to give them a chance to grow. Doing in-depth, independent research allows students to test the limits of their abilities like few other experiences available at the college level. My students have been able to experience an impressive amount of academic and personal growth, especially during intensive summer research experiences. Students get a chance to participate in a scholarly community, and some of them decide that research and academia is the right career path for them; even those who don’t gain a tremendous amount of knowledge, independence, and self-confidence from the experience. As an educator and a researcher, I really benefit from helping my students grow so much. (Sarah Purcell ’92)

My principal motivation for engaging in research would have to be the opportunity to really delve into a focused, personally crafted project. Oftentimes traditional academic classes are too fast-paced to truly allow for depth in research. The opportunity to do a history MAP this past summer opened my eyes to research techniques that are often passed over due to various constraints during the semester. Being able to dig through archives, investigate newspaper articles using microfilm, and really engage with a wealth of primary sources really advanced my skills as a historian, not just as a student. (Amanda Borson ’13)

Like Sarah, my primary motivation for mentoring students in research is to help them grow. In particular, I’ve found that many of our mid-level students tend to blossom in the intensive, 10-week summer research model. That is, given a chance to explore a topic in depth, to make their own decisions about approaches, and to discuss those decisions with a community, they often find that they are more capable than they thought they were based on their class situations.

I think of summer research as a chance for students to think about different options. In computer science (CS), some want to go into programming jobs, some want to do deeper research, and some want to do completely separate things. Working on a large project over the summer gives them the opportunity to consider what each thing means. For example, I had one student last summer who did quite well but decided that she really liked proving theorems more than writing code or papers, and she decided on a math major.

Although our curriculum focuses on collaborative activities, I think students regularly worry that CS is a solitary activity. The summer projects help show students that programming and research are communal, rather than individual, activities. I hope that this realization encourages more underrepresented students (particularly women) to continue in the discipline. CS has a stereotype of being very solitary, and I try to combat that stereotype. (Samuel Rebelsky)

I chose my research project (Media Scripting in Inkscape) because I wanted to explore a specific field in computer science, to see if I was interested in it, and whether this was something I’d like to pursue in a career or as a graduate student. I also wanted to see what the research experience itself would be like: I was hoping the project would give me a feel for the graduate school experience and help me decide if I wanted to go on to grad school after I graduated or if I would rather enter the job market right away. (Kate Ingersoll ’13)

I want students to build the discipline to work through an extended creative problem. Often they are interested in the initial creative spark, but training a student to sustain engagement with creative work when something is complicated, boring, or requires you to take time away from the initial project to learn a new set of skills is one of the most important skills one can learn as an artist.  (Lee Running)

My principle motivation for engaging in research stemmed from my curiosity. However, this curiosity is even more apparent in collaging and working with art in a digital space. This drive encourages me to ask questions about the material I am using and planning to appropriate to be responsible about its origins and heritage and what those mean in context to the general body of art, as well. (Kyle Espinosa ‘12)

What are the benefits of doing or mentoring Undergraduate Research, and what has surprised you the most about the experience?
Having mentored research students is a great way to help myself stay current on scholarship. I assign students articles and books that I need to consider for my own work, and I get the chance to discuss them with the students as a community of scholars. I have taken students to professional historical conferences, which has really expanded the notion of who can contribute to research in my field. It is not usual for undergraduates to be included in professional historical conferences, but my students did very well and opened the eyes of many professional colleagues to the worth of their participation. I have also taken students on research trips to archives and research libraries. Finally, many of my research students have contributed more directly to my research by collecting primary sources that can be useful in my own work. One student worked on a co-authored map that became a figure in one of my publications. (Sarah Purcell ’92)

While my history MAP was technically under the umbrella of Professor Purcell’s research project, I was surprised by how much independently generated research I accomplished. Because of this leeway, I investigated a topic (Confederate flag-waving at Southern college football games in the 50s and 60s) that complemented my advisor’s work but expanded my own research passions and interests. (Amanda Borson ’13)

I am fortunate that I work in an area in which students can contribute. I’ve designed my research projects so that they can involve students. Hence, most of the work I do with students contributes to my own scholarship. It’s not clear that it makes me more efficient; there are times that the work required to get a student “up to speed” is longer than it would take me to do the work myself. But I think the student learning gains are worth it, as is my own joy at seeing the students succeed. There are also a few instances in which students bring new concepts to the project. For example, one important thread in my current research stems from a student finding a somewhat obscure paper and saying “Sam, this would be a really good approach for us to try.”

At least early in my career, I regularly brought a large number of students to an international conference that had almost no undergraduate participants. That activity helped show my students how special they are — many of them were doing work on par with that of graduate students (a few won “outstanding paper” awards). I think it also helped develop a bit of a reputation for Grinnell. Certainly, I had some people whom I met at the conference tell me that they were having their children look at Grinnell because of what they saw in our students. (Samuel Rebelsky)

I was surprised by what I could do as a computer science undergraduate with only one year of experience. I was a little apprehensive about working on a 10-week Mentor Introductory Project (MIP)  when I’d only taken introductory-level computer science courses, but I found that even the little knowledge I had was enough foundation to write a very useful scripting application, provided I could use past projects and other research as a reference. The biggest surprise was learning that writing the application wasn’t the hardest part of the project; the hardest part of the project was knowing how to search for and find relevant research and references to guide us as we wrote our code. (Kate Ingersoll ’13)

I think the most successful aspect of the research mentoring has been the ability to deepen students’ historical thinking and skills. All of my summer research students get to spend a great deal of time learning research techniques that I simply do not have time to teach in such great depth during the semester. In addition, they get to concentrate on their writing and put time into revision that would not be possible during a semester. Even the students who do mentored work during the school year get to deepen their engagement with the writing process beyond even what is possible in a senior seminar. As a result, students have been able to present and publish their work off campus. One of my students won a prize for best student paper at a museum-studies conference (in competition with graduate students). Another student co-presented a paper with me at a historical conference. A group of four students curated a very successful museum exhibit on the Grinnell campus. They have learned a lot of skills and writing, and they have been able to pursue professional-level presentations above and beyond what they ever could have without the intense mentoring. (Sarah Purcell ’92)

The benefit of writing an argumentative piece of historical work improved my writing and research skills tenfold. (Amanda Borson ’13)

As I mentioned in an earlier entry, I think my greatest successes have been in giving students more confidence in their own abilities. Students who see others value their work, and who see what they can accomplish, have clearly gained from the experience.

I also think I’ve been successful at identifying projects that students can work on and that the community finds valuable. I will admit that the projects I did for my first seven-or-so years at the college got broader acclamation than my current projects, but I think my current projects will have more lasting value. (Samuel Rebelsky)

I think one of the best things about my research experience was that it gave me confidence in my abilities and showed me how I could use my skills from the classroom in a real-world setting, to make something valuable. The work that I did might soon get completed and get used as an application to teach scripting in the introductory computer science course at Grinnell. It’s very rewarding to see that, after just one year of experience in the department and 10 weeks of research over the summer, I was able to do something so interesting and helpful. It gives me a lot of motivation and enthusiasm for continuing on in my major. (Kate Ingersoll ’13)

I have been surprised by the caliber of work that one can accomplish given suitable settings. Being able to work on a Studio Art MAP where I get to swim around in my specialty has been an eye-opening experience for me. I was able to gain significant insight into how research plays a crucial role regardless of what field someone is in. I would definitely say that the most beneficial thing to come out of this experience is being able to instill the habit of being able to set aside copious amounts of time for research and experimentation for further studio research endeavors. (Kyle Espinosa ‘12)

The group MAP I just mentored was the most successful MAP I have done. The three students were advanced enough to undertake their own research but shared a studio. They held one another accountable for deadlines and critiques and were much more professional in their final outcome than individual MAPs I have done in the past.  (Lee Running)

As faculty, what venues do you encourage your students to use to disseminate their work, and why?
I encourage students to apply for exhibitions based on the work they are creating. This could involve application to an academic gallery, an artists registry, or a non-traditional space. I have been very pleased that their acceptance rate has been on par with what I would expect (usually 1 out of 10 or 15 applications is successful). (Lee Running)

I have to search high and low for presentation venues because there are not many established venues for presentation of undergraduate work in history. I encourage students to consider publication in one of several undergraduate history journals (even from time to time in a professional journal). I encourage them to present at Council on Undergraduate Research (CUR) conferences or poster sessions, as appropriate. I am always on the lookout for conferences that accept undergraduate presenters — there is a notable case in museum studies that sometimes fits my students. My students are capable of presenting in any venue that will have them. The most attractive thing to me is when the conference or journal is open to considering high-quality work produced by undergraduates. Perhaps it is time to push the conferences in my field to open up more space for this idea! (Sarah Purcell ’92)

In CS, conference proceedings often provide the archival form of the research. Hence, I encourage my students to apply to competitive conferences. In my first seven-or-so years at the college, I had important roles in one research community and was successful at helping students pick projects that would contribute well to that community. In more recent years, I’ve started a new research direction that I think is interesting, but I am less tied into the community, so it is harder to get student work accepted. Conferences are important because students are forced to compare their work to those of others, because they learn that they can do work comparable to that of students much more advanced than they are, and because they have to learn to talk to others about their own research and about the work of others.

My students often write open-source software, and I think it’s important that they contribute their software to the broader community. (Samuel Rebelsky)

How do you fund your Undergraduate Research efforts at Grinnell?
All of my financial and material support has come from Grinnell College. Grinnell funds student work in the summer with generous stipends. I have also received extra funds from Grinnell to take students along to conferences and research archives. As far as I know, there are not any externally funded grants available for historical mentorship related to my own research. I have had students participate in other historical research programs that are externally funded, but they were not projects related to my own work. (Sarah Purcell ’92)

Since Professor Purcell engineered the MAP structure last summer, we did not need a budget proposal and instead used the standard MAP summer stipend. (Amanda Borson ’13)

I was doing research as a MIP and so received a standard stipend of $3,400 from the college to cover research and living expenses. (Kate Ingersoll ’13)

Most of my financial and material support comes from the college. At times, I have funded some of my students with external grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF). My department has talked about applying to the NSF for Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) funding. However, REUs require that half your students come from outside of the institution. In the end, we decided that we have few enough slots to offer that we would prefer to limit supervision to our own students. If Grinnell were not able to be so generous in its funding, I expect that we would rethink that decision, although we might still make the same choices.

Some students effectively support themselves: the college has limited funding, and I am often able to mentor more students than the college supports. Hence, in many summers I have mentored volunteers. (Samuel Rebelsky)

I was able to accurately forecast what I would need for my MAP and included that in my initial proposed budget. (Kyle Espinosa ‘12)

I received a research grant that helped me hire two students to work with me over a summer on a large-scale installation. In MAP projects, I have worked with the support of the dean’s office to mentor students to develop their own work. (Lee Running)

What is the biggest challenge or struggle you’ve had to overcome when completing or mentoring Undergraduate Research?
The biggest struggle has been to learn how to form a scholarly community that enriches the student experience and gives them a sense of belonging. When I first started mentoring, I focused on one student at a time, which made the whole experience too isolating for my students. They did not get enough community interaction. Now that I take on small groups of students, and now that other historical colleagues also tend to do research mentoring, the students get more of a collective sense. The community support is important for keeping up morale and for inspiring intellectual exchange. (Sarah Purcell ’92)

Students have trouble disciplining themselves. I have had to impose more strict deadline structures than I expected and have had to work to maintain them. (Lee Running)

The biggest challenge was motivating myself to take the extra step required of a research project of this magnitude. For example, I had to learn to follow up with an archive about a source and that persistence is key. (Amanda Borson ’13)

Since I have my students do all of their work in teams, I find that my biggest struggles have to do with team issues. Many teams do quite well together. But some become quite dysfunctional. I’ve had a team in which one student basically “tuned out,” and nothing I could do would get him to pull his own weight. I’ve had teams of very strong students in which they all wanted to take the lead. In the end, I think these are useful experiences for the students. For better or worse, in the workplace they will often be judged more on what their group accomplishes than by what they accomplish as individuals.

I will admit that I’ve had mixed success in getting students to write up their work appropriately. Some summers, students follow my models well and produce very nice papers. In others, I feel like I keep pushing and pushing but see very few outcomes. (Samuel Rebelsky)

It was hard for my project partner and me to coordinate our work: on one hand, we didn’t want to do all of the work together, because for some aspects of the project, it was more efficient to divide the work into manageable sub-projects and work independently. On the other hand, we found that if we always worked separately, we sometimes accidentally re-did each other’s work, or one person would find a useful technique or solution that would have helped the other person on her part of the project, but this information didn’t get shared. To be honest, we didn’t find a perfect balance to this problem during the summer, but the experience taught us a lot about what we’d do differently next time. In future group research projects, I think I will try to be very deliberate about setting up daily or twice-daily meetings with my group members so that we can explain to the others in our group what we’ve been working on, what we’ve learned, and what our plans are for the day. I think that, in order to work well as a group, everyone should understand all parts of a large research project, even if they themselves are only working on one part of it. (Kate Ingersoll ’13)

For my Art MAP, being given more free rein than in previous settings was difficult to adjust to at first. Eventually the reality set in that I am accountable for all my actions and, subsequently, all my inactions as well. (Kyle Espinosa ‘12)

I would have liked to get a little more feedback from my advisor throughout the project. For the most part, I think he did a good job of trying not to give us too much advice because he wanted us to try to figure things out on our own. However, for someone who’d never done an expansive science research project before, it would have been helpful for me to get more guidance on how to approach the project: where to look for articles, what resources I could use to learn how to write a research proposal, suggestions for recording research notes, and so on. (Kate Ingersoll ’13)

Overall, I was extremely happy with my research experience. However, I would have liked more feedback after the project was completed. (Amanda Borson ’13)

From an administrative perspective, what do you see as the future challenges you will address regarding Undergraduate Research at Grinnell?
Grinnell has a long history of student involvement in research, but over the past decade, the MAP program has endeavored to increase the quality, clarify the faculty mentoring expectations, and emphasize products that are suitable for an outside audience. (Mark Schneider)

One of our biggest challenges has been ensuring that the guidelines that are currently in place to support undergraduate research adequately take disciplinary differences into account. (Heather Lobban-Viravong)

Reaching a wide variety of disciplines (where scholarly practices are similarly varied) can run into conflict with trying to be specific enough to satisfy quality expectations. Mentoring can involve very different practices for a creative writer than for a laboratory chemist. We are also victims of our own success: the program is expensive, and it becomes only more so as it becomes more popular with students and faculty alike. (Mark Schneider)

This area is certainly a work in progress, but we have made efforts to revise our guidelines so that the fields in which our faculty specialize, and the projects that their students undertake, are represented. (Heather Lobban-Viravong)

Reaching out to all disciplines continues to be a challenge. We attempt to be responsive to special needs that arise and to recognize that the longer tradition among the sciences (fostered in part by much easier access to external support) means that it will take time to develop new traditions in other fields. In the future, we hope to build more breadth, incorporate more scholarly paradigms, and expand funding. (Mark Schneider)

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