05/30/2012 11:49 am ET Updated Jul 30, 2012

Opening the Kimono: Why Undergraduates Should Do Research

"So... how many textbooks are you going to sell if you write at the end of every paragraph, "but we don't really know too much about this." In his book Ignorance: How It Drives Science, Stuart Firestein, talks about how science really works. How we, in the trenches, know that we know bupkis after you scrape the surface. His interview with the Daily Beast was just the catalyst we needed to share the thrill we get out of doing research with our undergraduates.

Our laboratories at the University of Delawareand Temple Universityhave an average of 10-15 undergraduate students each semester. In the summer, they come to us for unpaid internships from all over the world -- places like Switzerland, Germany, Japan, and Turkey. They also come to us from many different majors, including education, psychology, mathematics, linguistics, computer science, and even pre-med. We love working with undergraduates especially (and graduate students too!) because they don't realize how much we don't know. Until they get involved in our research.

As Firestein says, textbooks mislead college students into thinking that we know the truth about ADHD or the physics of meteors. Believing that our knowledge base is largely settled, our students become passive recipients of "received wisdom."

Students who enter research labs like ours gain a totally different perspective. They question shibboleths and learn about how best to find answers to their questions. They soon recognize that even people with Ph.D.s who publish articles in journals with fancy names like, "Proceedings of the National Academies of Science," puts their pants on one leg at a time like the rest of us. We call our students "Dr. So-and-so" while inviting them to call us by our first names. This "leveling" implicitly tells them, "Hey you can do this too!" It encourages our students to be what Professor John Bruer called knowledge transformers and not just knowledge digesters.

They learn two key lessons in our labs. First, they learn that "answers" in any field are but provisional. Okay we said it. There is no "truth." The truth morphs each time we learn more. Take ulcers. Many of you reading this will swear that ulcers are caused by stress. Not so. They are caused by a bacterium, H pylori, and even the two Australian scientists who discovered this in the 1980's found the medical community very slow to accept this "truth." And this truth is only provisional until we understand the mechanism whereby H. pylori does its dirty work.

The second big lesson undergraduates learn is how to evaluate the evidence for or against a point of view. In other words, they move far beyond, "They say..." the expression often used as a way of providing "evidence" for a tenuous position. Our students come to appreciate what it really takes to answer a question about how big and little humans think, feel, or act. They come to appreciate how we translate questions into research that can provide (at least) tentative answers. Most important, they learn to be skeptical and not necessarily believe the first explanation they find.

Consider the case of electronic books for kids. Before the new explosion in digital books, we had electronic console books that contained a story and buttons to press that made noises relevant to the story. These books are already in 100,000 homes and thousands of schools so the next generation of digital books are bound to exceed them. Americans' eternal optimism about technology, as well as the persistent push of the marketplace, leads parents to think that if a toy or a book has a battery it must be an improvement over one that does not.

In our labs though, students learn that it is dangerous to take assertions for granted and believe the hype on the box. We asked whether 3-year-olds who use electronic books do just as well in understanding a story as kids who are read traditional books with those thin sheets you turn -- you know, paper pages. We invited parents in our labs or at the Please Touch Museum in Philadelphia to read the very same story to their children -- either on the electronic console book, or from a traditional book. Our student researchers watched as children read the traditional book cuddled up to their parent, listened attentively, and asked the occasional question. They also saw how the electronic book made smart kids look learning-disabled as their parents urged them to hold off pushing the buttons so they could read the story. Graduate students like Julia Parish-Morris directed a team of undergraduates who worked on the project. The undergraduates helped frame the questions, prepare the stimulus materials, interact with the families, and assist in coding and analyzing our findings. Immersed in research every step of the way, they learned about the scientific process and came to realize how asking a good question matters for getting a good answer!

Lo and behold, it turned out that the 3-year-olds in our study were seriously disadvantaged in their understanding of the plot of a storybook read to them on the electronic console book compared to those who heard the traditional book. Kids who heard the electronic storybook couldn't even remember who-did-what-to-whom or identify the order of events in the story. Does this mean digital books will be bad for young kids? Maybe not -- as with the early research on television, the answer probably lies in the message not in the medium. Our undergraduates began to see the nuances in asking and answering a research question. There will probably be good digital books and bad ones. And research like ours can help us understand how to craft these books in ways that heighten their educational value. Maybe we can someday provide digital books with better functions to kids from disadvantaged families who don't get to hear storybooks enough.

The undergraduates who worked on this project alongside us gained valuable insights. They read and discussed research papers on what kids get out of storybook reading, coming to appreciate the value of traditional storybooks for building vocabulary, exposing children to the kind of sentence structures they will hear in school, and spurring young children's imagination and creativity. Our undergraduates thought hard about how to evaluate electronic books in light of our knowledge of traditional books. And they continually asked questions about the process of research, wonderful questions that, though often naïve, prompted us to alter the path of the planned study.

The Yiddish word for how this makes us, their professors, feel, is "nachas" -- pride in the achievements of the people we care about. We see students like Kim S., with average SATs and not in one of our exalted Honors Programs, blossom at our weekly research meetings. With more reading and discussion, what seemed beyond question and settled knowledge became softer and less firm as Kim queried and pressed for better answers. Kim was morphing into an educated citizen. She would not fall for fads or accept advertising about what's good for kids without probing and pushing. She would probably be a more effective parent. And of course, she would recognize that her textbooks -- regardless of the field -- told only part of the story. Once the kimono is opened, there's no going back; a little ignorance is a good thing!