Undergraduate research has numerous positive outcomes for the participating students ranging from improved performance in classes, higher self-identification as scientists, better graduation rates, and better retention of students from underrepresented demographics. By actively carrying out cutting-edge scientific research, students feel like scientific experts with the ability to tackle difficult problems, and this sense of belonging can be especially valuable for first generation and underrepresented students. Ideally, every first-year student at large research institutions would have the opportunity to be a part of the ground-breaking research happening on their campus; however, the current models of undergraduate research are often unable to provide that experience to first-year undergraduate students. Traditional apprenticeship research positions are designed for advanced undergraduate students who want to make a significant time commitment. Course-based undergraduate research experiences have many positive benefits but often lack the ability to replicate a true research experience. We developed a research group-based undergraduate research program for first-year undergraduate students. Our program allowed 20 students to pursue curiosity driven research using cutting edge data previously collected by our research group. This model is transferable to other research groups, departments, and universities, and the implementation of first-year research experiences would be a significant benefit to the educational experience of undergraduate students, especially for students from underrepresented backgrounds in STEM.
In this program, students were given unanalyzed videos of platinum nanocrystals moving, growing, and attaching in solution collected using a state-of-the-art electron microscope and then were able to investigate and analyze phenomena they found intriguing. We assumed the students had no previous research experience nor knowledge of our research area of nanomaterials, so we taught the background information necessary to complete their projects. After learning the fundamentals of the research area, the undergraduate students began brainstorming interesting questions about the data set they were provided. Students were able to test various hypotheses for how nanocrystals grow and interact and learn how to pivot from a failed idea to a more promising hypothesis. Finally, the students learned how to communicate their results in the form of an academic paper and a poster presentation. Going through the scientific process with a project that was scientifically relevant gave the undergraduate students valuable experience as well as a sense of accomplishment.
The immediate returns, both qualitative and quantitative, show the ability for programs like AGURP to make a difference in the education experience of all first-year STEM students. Roughly half of the applicants who came to the information session were women, and half of the admitted students were women. The students expressed a sense of ownership of their project at the poster session and were proud of their research achievements. Quantitatively, the students expressed significant gains in their self-identification of their research skills from the pre- and post-program surveys. For a program like AGURP to be sustainable, it needs to be positive for both the students and the research groups, and programs like AGURP can be mutually beneficial. The goal of developing a group-based research program is to build an implementable model for other universities, so every first-year undergraduate student aspiring to achieve a STEM degree can feel a sense of belonging through research and increase their persistence rate to graduation.