Science Education: The Value of Undergraduate Research

05/08/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • James M. Gentile Dean for the Natural & Applied Sciences, Hope College, Holland, MI

Growing concern about America's continued leadership in science and innovation is well- documented, and now new research offers hope. It provides, for the first time, research-based evidence of the personal and professional value of undergraduate research. It makes clear that engaging undergraduates in scientific research pays dividends that were only previously recognized anecdotally. It provides a clear direction for science education at the college level.

The results of the research are contained in a new publication - Science in Solution: the Impact of Undergraduate Research on Student Learning - written by noted experimental psychologist David Lopatto, professor of psychology and Samuel R. and Marie-Louise Rosenthal Professor of Natural Sciences and Mathematics at Grinnell College, in Grinnell, IA. (The book has just been published by Research Corporation for Science Advancement and is available for free download at

Science in Solution examines the wisdom and effectiveness of inviting undergraduate students at our nation's colleges and universities to assist scientists in conducting cutting-edge research, a role traditionally reserved for graduate and postdoctoral students. Previous research had demonstrated that undergraduate laboratory work encouraged graduate work. The new research demonstrates far broader impact and, in doing so, points the way as the United States seeks to maintain the world's highest-quality science programs in the face of increasing competition from abroad.

With grants from the National Science Foundation and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Dr. Lopatto surveyed more than 10,000 students at more than 150 U.S. colleges and universities over several years. The research produced the following findings:

o Undergraduate research has multiple benefits to the student - both personal and professional. Personal benefits include increased self-confidence, independence, readiness for the next level of challenge, and ability to tolerate obstacles. Professional benefits include learning what it's like to be a scientist and what life as a scientist would be like, gaining experience that will advance career opportunities, and obtaining specific skills such as critical-thinking, communications, and making presentations.

o Undergraduate research is good pedagogy. Contrary to the traditional view that undergraduate research should only follow completion of prerequisite lecture and lab courses, the research underscores the value of involving younger students early (even as some try to determine their academic interests), engaging them through research, and requiring only the "just in time" science learning needed to participate in the research.

o Undergraduate research is beneficial across disciplines. This is especially true for the benefits in personal growth and specific skills that are equally applicable to all sciences.

o Undergraduate research is beneficial to faculty. The fresh perspectives and questions from students can be productively challenging, and the research can provide a bridge between the two poles of publication and teaching. When working with undergraduates on research, there's no boundary between teaching and scientific exploration.

In addition, an increased commitment to undergraduate research will enhance the prospects for U.S. leadership in the sciences in the future. While the United States has led the world in science and technology for the past half century, other nations such as China and India, as well as some in the European Union, are rapidly improving the quality of their education and science programs.

The evidence provided in Science in Solution is central to increasing the effectiveness of science education in America. It demonstrates the value of teaching students early in their academic careers to think like scientists - to use the tools of analysis and tap inner resourcefulness when facing the unknown, and not merely to think about science based on knowledge absorbed passively while sitting in a lecture hall. It provides a clear direction for addressing three well-documented problems in college-level science education:

o Many students enter college with an interest in science and engineering, but far more decide to switch to other fields than is the case for students interested in the humanities and social sciences (50% vs. 30%, according to the National Science Foundation).

o Introductory science classes are too often used as a way of weeding out students instead of cultivating them.

o The traditional lecture format, a staple of introductory science classes, actually fails miserably as a technique for encouraging student learning - with students learning less than half as much as they do with active engagement.

As a nation, we need to engage more prospective scientists, show them the opportunities that a career in science can hold, and encourage early-career scientists as they embark on their chosen paths. Science in Solution points the way. Science education should now build on this research.

The author is president and CEO of Research Corporation for Science Advancement (, America's second-oldest foundation, begun in 1912, and the first dedicated wholly to science.