Undergraduate research experiences lead to more STEM doctoral degrees, according to study led by Auburn University professor

Published: June 14, 2018
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College students who participate in hands-on, faculty-mentored research en route to their bachelor’s degrees cite multiple personal and professional benefits the experience delivers, from strengthening their time-management, critical-thinking and communication skills to developing one-on-one connections with distinguished faculty.

But a new analysis by scientists from Auburn University and four collaborating institutions suggests the value of structured research programs for undergraduates extends to society as a whole by encouraging participants to seek advanced degrees in scientific and technological fields—often referred to as STEM, an acronym for science, technology, engineering and math.

In an article published June 13 in the journal BioScience, the researchers reported that college underclassmen who take part in summer research training programs—specifically, in this study, the National Science Foundation’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates, or REU, initiative—are 48 percent more likely to pursue STEM-related doctoral degrees than demographically matched students who apply but are not selected.

Alan Wilson, Auburn School of Fisheries, Aquaculture and Aquatic Sciences associate professor and lead author of “Assessing Science Training Programs: Structured Undergraduate Research Programs Make a Difference,” said the new analysis is among the first to provide valuable, quantifiable data on the effectiveness of such opportunities.

“Accurately assessing the impact of undergraduate research has been difficult because it typically has taken a subjective approach, with participants responding through surveys or evaluations about what they got out of the experience,” Wilson said. “It has been qualitative, not quantitative.”

As he and his colleagues note in their publication, however, concrete data are increasingly essential.

“Scientific, technological and economic competitiveness is motivating greater interest and investment in STEM training around the world, with an emphasis on addressing the current (global) shortage of STEM Ph.D.s,” the scientists write. “With annual spending on STEM training well over $14 billion in the United States, guiding future investments…demands a good understanding of effective approaches.”

In the REU program, NSF awards universities and laboratories three-year competitive grants to support the scientific training of 10 college underclassmen for 10 weeks over three consecutive summers. Students from colleges with limited research opportunities then apply to host institutions, and those accepted receive a stipend and, at Auburn and many other REU sites, free room and board for the duration of their training.

To gauge the effectiveness of these funded research experiences for college freshmen, sophomores and juniors, the researchers identified and tracked 176 individuals with similar demographics who had applied to one of five field-ecology- or field-biology-based training programs offered at five different REU sites in the U.S. for the summers of 2009-11. Half of the applicants were accepted; half were not.

“Our assumption for a long time has been that conducting independent undergraduate research under the guidance of a faculty mentor prepares students for success in STEM careers,” Wilson said. “Our data support that assumption. They show that the product is real, that it can make a difference — for the students, their mentors and the reputation of their universities.

“We hope our findings will increase future students’ interest in learning how to ‘do’ research and encourage more college faculty to invest their time and energies into mentoring.”

Wilson, a strong proponent of students’ hands-on involvement in research, was awarded his first REU Site grant, focused on warm-water aquatic ecology, in 2010 and mentored a total 34 undergraduates through the following three summers. Michael Moore, currently a doctoral student in aquatic ecology at the University of Missouri, was among Wilson’s 2011 participants, and for him, the experience was an eye-opening game changer.

“It was very important for me in my exploration of different career paths because I was expected to generate knowledge, become the expert on my research topic and present that information to my peers,” Moore said. “That gave me confidence to pursue other internships and, later, graduate school far from home.”

He also learned an important truth about research.

“I came to realize that conducting scientific research is a messy process, that things usually don't work out as cleanly as they read in the methods section of a journal article,” he said. “Learning how to deal with adversity and challenges helped me build resilience and persistence as a young, sometimes idealistic, scientist.”

Wilson received a second REU grant award in 2017 and recently welcomed his 2018 group of 10 to Auburn for independent research projects led by a team of faculty mentors whose research programs include a variety of disciplines associated with aquatic ecology. His is one of four NSF-funded REU sites now at Auburn.

The REU impact study, which kicked off in 2016, was designed by Sally O’Connor, an REU program director with NSF, and Jenna Pollock, then an NSF intern, collected the data. Wilson assisted Pollock in analyzing the data. Other collaborating scientists included Ian Billick of the Rocky Mountain Biological Lab in Colorado; Eric Nagy, University of Virginia; Carmen Domingo, San Francisco State University; and Adam Summers, University of Washington. Auburn’s Todd Steury, associate professor of wildlife ecology, and NSF fellow Edna Fernandez-Figueroa also contributed to the project.

Read more about the study.

Auburn University is a nationally ranked land grant institution recognized for its commitment to world-class scholarship, interdisciplinary research and an undergraduate education experience second to none. Auburn is home to more than 29,000 students, and its faculty and research partners collaborate to develop and deliver meaningful scholarship, science and technology-based advancements that meet pressing regional, national and global needs. Auburn's commitment to active student engagement, professional success and public/private partnership drives a growing reputation for outreach and extension that delivers broad economic, health and societal impact. Auburn's mission to educate, discover and collaborate drives its expanding impact on the world.