Increasing Diversity of Undergraduate Scientific Researchers
Source Newsroom: Council on Undergraduate Research (CUR)
Newswise — A new summer research program at Ursinus College brings students from groups less likely to pursue careers in the sciences into laboratories before they start college or at the end of their first year. The program is called FUTURE, Fellowships in the Ursinus Transition to the Undergraduate Research Experience. FUTURE is designed for students who are women, African America, Latino, Native American, individuals with disabilities, or first generation college students. Participants are encouraged to complete their majors in science and stay on track for scientific careers. The FUTURE program is part of the Center for Science and the Common Good (CSCG) at Ursinus College, which is supported by funds from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI). The CSCG provides opportunities for students to think, speak, and write about the impact of science on the common good. Through the FUTURE program, students establish skills in science and are encouraged to contribute their knowledge towards the good of society in their careers.
Retention of the student population included in the FUTURE program has traditionally been a challenge. In 2000, while 6% of white undergraduate students nationwide earned a B.S. in the natural sciences, only 2.5% of underrepresented minority students did so (Jones et al. 2010). In K-12, girls and boys take math and science courses in roughly equal numbers, but among college graduates, men outnumber women in nearly every science field, especially in disciplines such as physics and computer science, where only 20% of graduates are women (Hill et al. 2010).
Early involvement of underserved students in undergraduate science research is an effective way to retain them in science. The most extensive quantitative study to date found that “participating in science research during the first two years or for more than three terms is associated with about a 240% increase in a student’s odds of graduation in biology with a [competitive] GPA” (Jones et al. 2010). The frequent, positive contact with faculty and advanced peers that results from the integration of students into research, increases students’ academic and social integration and thus retention in science (Nagda et al., 1998).
Given what these studies tell us about how research experiences increase retention of underrepresented students in the sciences, the FUTURE program is designed to provide the following experiences for participants: an early research experience; opportunities for continued research experiences in subsequent years; support for travel to present their findings at a research conference; mentoring by a faculty member and an undergraduate student with research experience; and mechanisms for connecting with the campus community. During the summer of 2013, 16 students and eight faculty members participated in the FUTURE research program. Eight of the students were entering college or completing their first year at Ursinus. This group included students from minority groups underrepresented in the sciences, women, students with disabilities and first generation college students. Each student was grouped with an undergraduate student already experienced in laboratory research and a faculty member. These teams of three worked together during the summer on novel cutting edge research projects in biology, chemistry, psychology, and computer science. For example, first year college student Andy Santiago worked with Nathan Labourdette, class of 2014, and Associate Professor April Kontostathis on programming a mobile device app that would help patients monitor their wellbeing between visits with a psychologist. Incoming college student Alyse Brewer used molecular mapping techniques to identify a gene important for early development of the small worm C. elegans with Thuy Nguyen, class of 2015, and Associate Professor Rebecca Lyczak. FUTURE students also took a one credit course on becoming a successful scientist and participated in social activities designed to engage them with the college community.
The program had a positive impact on students as they pursue challenging goals in science education. Elana Roadcloud, who participated as a first year college student said, “I am able to confidently continue on my path as a biology major because I know now a little bit more of what this major has in store for me. I believe that with all of this newly acquired knowledge that I am ready for whatever is thrown at me next.” Students also gained confidence in their ability to communicate and make connections with faculty members, as indicated by Jamira Bowens who participated as an incoming college student, “Working with the professors was amazing and it made me way more comfortable knowing that they were all there to assist us and help with anything we needed.” All eight new researchers are continuing laboratory research projects in the fall semester at Ursinus College and research teams are planning where they will attend conferences to present their work. Elana Roadcloud is presenting her work at the American Society for Cell Biology conference in New Orleans and Jamira Bowens is presenting at the Entomological Society of America National meeting in Austin. HHMI will support the FUTURE program for three more years and then Ursinus College, a member of the Council on Undergraduate Research (CUR), will continue to support this program.
Hill, C., C. Corbett, and A. St. Rose. 2010. Why so few? American Association of University Women, Washington, DC.
Jones, Melanie T., Amy E. L. Barlow, and Merna Villarejo. 2010. Importance of undergraduate research for minority persistence and achievement in biology. Journal of Higher Education, 81(1), 82-115.
Nagda, B. A., Gregerman, S. R., Jonides, J., von Hippel, W., & Lerner, J. S. (1998). Undergraduate student-faculty research partnerships affect student retention. Review of Higher Education, 22(1), 55–72.