Friday, June 2, 2017

The educational value of undergraduate research projects

This past semester I have been supervising two undergraduate research projects. One student is doing a one semester course (1/4 of the students load) for a third year student. The second student has a year long project for a fourth year student (1/2 of their load). I am very happy with how both have gone in terms of their educational value. The amount of research results is of secondary importance to me. Previously, I posted about possible ingredients for a good undergrad project. Both students are working on a simple model for hydrogen bonds. I recommend this because it has an "easy" learning curve and so they can start "doing science" quick. It also has a nice mix of theory and experiment, chemistry and physics.

Things that struck me as particularly valuable include the following very basic things. Some of which relate to basic but important skills.

Seeing calculations to completion. 
In an undergrad problem set or exam the student has limited time and gets partial marks for incomplete or wrong answers. In research you have to keep working on the problem until you have an answer and have checked it enough that you are confident it is the correct answer.

Personal attention.
Each week they get to meet one-to-one with a faculty member and get advice and feedback.

Learning that they really do matter and you have to get them right. This converting between different unit systems.

Writing and debugging code.
Even a short Matlab or Mathematica code.

Reading papers not textbooks.
Gifted students can find textbooks quite manageable and understandable. Papers are in a different league.

Experiencing what research is often like.
Hard. Confusing. Boring. Tedious... But, progress and understanding can be quite satisfying.

Communication skills.
Giving a talk and writing reports, and getting feedback on them.

Job skills.
Time management. Showing up for meetings on time. Writing meeting summaries. Coming up with action plans. Listening to constructive criticism. Working with others.


  1. Other skills:

    -dealing with negative criticism (even "super"-visors are human...)

    -integrating different areas of knowledge for a singular goal (this is often quite missing in course work that is rather sub-field specialized)

    -actually formulating a hypothesis, and following up with a plan of attack to confirm or disprove this hypothesis in experiments. This means the hypothesis has to be testable, and requires theoretical knowledge and experimental insight.
    I find this something that is also lacking in most coursework and labs - the hypothesis is often provided in the introduction to guided experiments. This is a crucial part of being a researcher. Even if the supervisor already knows what the most suitable road (hypothesis+experiments) ahead is, having the student reach this on his own, probably nudged a little in discussions, is very important to give them a taste of what research is like.

    -measuring and seeing that reality is noisy, inferring that experimental design matters to be able to extract useful signal from this noise, and critically thinking through a follow up experiment to "nail it".

  2. This is an good pdf file compilation for undergrad physics student courses. This one is for USA. It could be different for other countries. The problem comes when class of students have wide distribution in learning capacity.