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On Advising Undergraduate Research

This article was originally published in the Spring 2001 issue of the CFT’s newsletter, Teaching Forum.

By Robert L. Galloway, Professor of Biomedical Engineering; Professor of Neurological surgery; Director, Center of Technology-Guided Therapy.

During my 16+ years at Vanderbilt I have been the formal advisor for over 30 undergraduate research projects and, as the professor in the BME department with the greatest fondness for gizmos, gadgets, doohickeys and thing-a-ma-bobs, I have been the unofficial advisor for countless other projects. I have been asked to write a “do’s and don’t” piece about advising undergraduate research- a request that perhaps strains the presumption that experience translates into wisdom. Please be assured that these ideas are neither necessary nor sufficient for success but might help spark your own foray into advising student projects. The single most important idea that I’ve gleaned is that student research is not about what the student does to the research, it is what the research does to the student. Over the course of a semester or even a year, an undergraduate might do something at the publishable level, but that’s rare. However, of you look to a research project as providing an opportunity for a student to understand the fundamental research issues of forming a problem, delving into research literature, dealing with unknown results, and, perhaps most importantly, taking possession of a problem- then a positive outcome is possible even with null or scientifically trivial results. Once a student learns to posses a problem and it becomes his or hers- not yours or a textbook’s- then you have created a profound change in that student which can lead to work at a significantly higher plane.

Having said that, I don’t believe that all students have a right to perform undergraduate research. It can require a significant effort from the professor (for which you get little, if any, professional credit), consume resources, and take time away from directing graduate students or performing your own research. I also don’t believe that GPA should either be a threshold or a qualifier. High GPA students might just be looking for a research project as yet another credential on their way to some later goal. Students with less lofty GPAs may be bored by the answer in the back of the book and yet ignite when allowed to find their own answers. The trick here is to find a student whose desire for the research opportunity makes it worth your time and resources.

Now on to more pedantic issues. How do you go about doing this? First a project should have some definitive closure with at least one result easily obtainable in the period of the research time with the resources already at hand. This allows a student to actually accomplish something, and you can judge him or her on something more tangible than perceived effort. It is better to have a student exceed a short goal than to fall short of a distant one. If things go well when they hit that first result, they begin to see the next ones and start to self-direct.

Second, how do you find such a project? We all have those little side ideas that we’re going to get to “when we’ve got time.” If it would take you a good weekend to do the work, an undergraduate can do it with your direction in a semester while taking other classes. If nothing else, student research work can help you get the reference material together and force you to spend some time with the project. In explaining the background to the student, you examine your own approach to the work and lay the foundation towards a solution.

Finally, undergraduate research allows you the opportunity to enjoy on a one-to-one basis some of the brightest students on the country; when things go well, you can be there when the big “click” happens and they get the new ideas. And that is what makes it worthwhile.

From the Vol 3:2 Spring 2001 Newsletter of the CFT.