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Creating Effective Undergraduate Research Programs In Science: The Transformation from Student to Scientist

reviewed by John Mateja - June 23, 2009

coverTitle: Creating Effective Undergraduate Research Programs In Science: The Transformation from Student to Scientist
Author(s): Roman Taraban and Richard L. Blanton
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807748773, Pages: 272, Year: 2008
Search for book at Amazon.com

For both novices and experienced practitioners in the arena of undergraduate research, Creating Effective Undergraduate Research Programs in Science: The Transformation from Student to Scientist by Roman Taraban and Richard Blanton is a “must read.” Individuals in both groups will learn something new about the impact of undergraduate research experiences and about the elements of successful programs. Why is undergraduate research important?  Why is this book both important and timely? To answer these questions, one must first understand the state of education in the United States.

Since the publication of A Nation at Risk in 1983, numerous reports have called on the U.S. science education community to strengthen science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education in this country (Gardner (1983); Neal (1986); Kenny (1998); Kenny (2002); Washington (2003); Ramaley (2002); Augustine (2007)). The concern was so great when A Nation at Risk was published that the authors went so far as to say that “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war (Gardner, 1983, p. 1)." The most recent of these reports, Rising Above the Gathering Storm, echoes similar concerns (Augustine, 2007). Despite the frequent calls and the strength of the calls, only modest change has occurred in STEM education and, today, the United States lags in both education performance and in the percent of students pursuing STEM degrees and careers. At the precollege level, for example, when U.S. 15-year-olds were tested in 2006 for math and science literacy, they placed 25th and 21st, respectively, among 30 developed countries (Baldi, Jin, Skemer, Green, Herget, & Xie, 2007, pp. 6 and 12). At the undergraduate level, approximately one-third of U.S. bachelors degrees were awarded in the sciences and engineering in 2008, compared with well over one-half of the degrees being awarded in science and engineering fields in Japan (63%), China (56%), Singapore (59%), Laos (57%), and Thailand (69%) (National Science Board, 2008, pp. 2-38). While job growth in STEM areas continues to rise in the U.S., now accounting for approximately 5.5 million jobs in the U.S. annually, significant and increasing percentages of these jobs are filled by a “graying” workforce and by foreign-born talent (National Science Board, 2008, pp. 3-12, 44, and 50). While the Statue of Liberty poem written by Lazarus may say “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses…” (Lazarus, 1883), the reality is that for decades the U.S. science enterprise has relied heavily on other countries giving us their talented and well educated. With STEM employment opportunities increasing globally, the U.S. strategy that simply imported the talent it needed may no longer be viable. One might even ask whether or not the United States will be able to retain U.S.-born STEM talent as attractive job opportunities develop in other countries. Clearly, the United States needs to address the STEM education and workforce situation.

Creating Effective Undergraduate Research Programs in Science: The Transformation from Student to Scientist focuses on a critical element of the education pipeline – undergraduate education. For several decades, the idea of engaged learning through authentic research experiences has been gaining importance as a pedagogical strategy, but, as pointed out in the book, there is “no united presentation of the organization, nature, benefits, and challenges associated with student research experiences that is based on evidence” (p. 4). What this monograph does is pull together the best empirical evidence from the leading practitioners of undergraduate research on the effects of research experiences on college students and identify experiential programs that work. The publication also hopes to spark further discussion of the subject and spur additional research on student research experiences.

Some of the best and most thorough work on evaluating the impact of undergraduate research has been done by Gregerman and her colleagues at the University of Michigan. In Chapter 2, Angela Locks and Sandra Gregerman lay out the University of Michigan undergraduate research program and present the results of their research findings on the impact of undergraduate research at the University. As evidence has mounted that summer research experiences have a significant positive impact on the career and personal aspirations of undergraduates, a move to bring such research experiences into the organized course and lab curriculum has more recently developed. In Chapter 3, Carol Trosset, David Lopatto, and Sarah Elgin describe three upper-division chemistry and biology courses at Washington University that have embedded significant research experiences.    

Chapters 4, 5, and 6 report the impacts of undergraduate research on three different student audiences. In Chapter 4, 15,000 students who participated in NSF funded research opportunities were surveyed. The experience of these students is correlated against student interest in research, GPA, academic major, the impact of “extra-curricular” activities, type of school, and precollege/pre-research degree expectations.  In Chapter 5, you will learn from a post-collegiate study of University of Delaware alumni by Karen Bauer and Joan Bennett how an undergraduate research experience impacts the number of students who go on to graduate school, students' satisfaction with their college experience and students' abilities to develop intellectual curiosity, acquire information independently, understand scientific findings, analyze literature critically, speak effectively, act as a leader and possess clear career goals. The results of the Summer Undergraduate Research Experiences (SURE) survey conducted by David Lopatto are presented in Chapter 6. An important question probed by Lopatto's work is whether or not an undergraduate research experience maintains or increases a student's interest in further science education.  

In Chapter 7, Anne-Barrie Hunter, Sandra Laursen, and Elaine Seymour report from their data that there are important distinctions in the ways faculty and students perceive and value particular types of gains from undergraduate research experiences. Chapter 8, written by Roman Taraban, Eric Prensky, and Craig Bowen, looks at the nature and characteristics of the various kinds of research experiences a student might encounter. These range from the traditional course-related laboratory experience, with experiments that have predictable outcomes, to undergraduate research experiences that immerse the student in authentic research that leads to publications in professional journals. From interview data of undergraduates participating in the ideal undergraduate research experience, these authors identify the critical elements of a successful undergraduate research experience.

The monograph then turns to look at how undergraduate research impacts male and female interns’ perceptions of gains, self-efficacy, and disappointments, and how female students transcend deficits and differences through their undergraduate research experiences. While the study of Ashley Campbell and Gerald Skoog in Chapter 10 indicates that research experiences and mentor relationships are important in preparing women for a career in science, the work of CarolAnne Kardash, Michael Wallace, and Linda Blockus reports in Chapter 9 that insights into the research process, which can include disappointing results, research setbacks, significant time to obtain results, and physical isolation in the laboratory, can also cause students to “rethink” their interest in a science career.    

Although the student stories reported in Chapter 11 are certainly anecdotal, for me, this is one of the most important and compelling chapters in the book. Here Robin Henne brings together the personal experiences of a handful of alumni of the undergraduate research experience. Whether it is in science or some other field, a college education should be about helping students realize their potential, and the stories that Henne has collected illustrate very clearly how undergraduate research helps students find their interests and, thus, helps put them on a path to realizing their true potential.

History is replete with superpowers that have come and gone. Today, U.S. supremacy is being challenged in many ways. Few would argue with the idea that having a well-educated citizenry is central to maintaining a global leadership position. Creating Effective Undergraduate Research Programs in Science critically analyzes and discusses one of the more, if not most, promising pedagogical innovations of the last fifty years. It is essential that we all become engaged in a meaningful dialogue about changing the undergraduate experience, and Creating Effective Undergraduate Research Programs in Science provides a thoughtful and well-researched point from which to have that discussion.  


Augustine, N.R. (2007). Committee on Science, Engineering and Public Policy. Rising above the gathering storm – Energizing and employing America for a brighter economic future. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Baldi, S., Jin, Y., Skemer, M., Green, P., Herget, D., & Xie, H. (2007). National Center for Education Statistics. Highlights from PISA 2006:  Performance of U.S. 15-year-old students in science and mathematics literacy in an international context. U.S. Department of Education.

Gardner, D.P. (1983). The National Commission on Excellence in Education. A nation  at risk: The imperative for educational reform. Report to the Secretary of Education, US Department of Education.  Retrieved on June 1, 2009 from www.ed.gov/pubs/NatAtRisk/title.html.

Kenny, S.S. (1998).  Boyer Commission on Educating Undergraduates in the Research University. Reinventing undergraduate education: A blueprint for America’s research universities. Stony Brook, NY: State University of New York.

Kenny, S.S. (2002). Boyer Commission on Educating Undergraduates in the Research University. Reinventing undergraduate education: Three years after the Boyer report. Stony Brook, NY: State University of New York.

Lazarus, E. (1883). The New Colossus. Inscription from the Statue of Liberty, New York City.

National Science Board. (2008). Science and Engineering Indicators 2008. National Science Foundation. NSB 08-01.

Neal, H. (1986). Neal Report. Washington, DC: National Science Board

 Ramaley, J. (2002). National Panel Report. Greater expectations: A new vision for learning as a nation goes to college. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Washington, W.M. (2003). The science and engineering workforce – Realizing America’s potential. Washington, DC:  National Science Board

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: June 23, 2009
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15668, Date Accessed: 11/27/2021 7:11:07 PM

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About the Author
  • John Mateja
    Murray State University
    E-mail Author
    JOHN MATEJA (Director of the Office of Undergraduate Research and Scholarly Activity at Murray State University) earned his doctoral degree in nuclear physics from the University of Notre Dame. He has been involved in the development of undergraduate research programs for over 30 years. He is a past president of the Council on Undergraduate Research and serves on the Board of Governors of the National Conference on Undergraduate Research. He has held positions at Argonne National Laboratory, the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation.
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