For Undergraduates, Hands-On Research And Book Learning Go Hand In Hand

A wide range of observers are concerned that science instructors at United States universities are inadequately stimulating, encouraging, and equipping their students--the potential future generation of researchers--to pursue their interests beyond the undergraduate level. Many of those concerned assert that the problem lies in an improper balance between what they consider mutually exclusive activities for professors: classroom instruction and research in the laboratory. On one hand, some co

Feb 22, 1993
Mays Hoopes

A wide range of observers are concerned that science instructors at United States universities are inadequately stimulating, encouraging, and equipping their students--the potential future generation of researchers--to pursue their interests beyond the undergraduate level.

Many of those concerned assert that the problem lies in an improper balance between what they consider mutually exclusive activities for professors: classroom instruction and research in the laboratory.

On one hand, some contend, science professors should be spending more time teaching in the classroom and less time in the lab; others urge them to put classroom instruction on the back burner and spend more time in the lab, to increase the prestige of their universities as well as national competitiveness.

In my view, however, the commonly held dichotomy between "teaching" and "research" is false and misguiding. There are many institutions where the two approaches to science education do not war with each other. At these schools, they go hand in hand: Indeed, research is regarded as the finest form of teaching.

Some think of this process as an apprenticeship, but I see it more as an option to buy. A student tries out directing a project, to find out something nobody has known previously. For some, the loneliness of the laboratory or the frustration with the delayed reward system of science may be insufferable; but for many, the result is ample reward.

Take, for instance, Christine Hodge, a student researcher funded by Monsanto Co. in 1992--through the Academic Industrial Partnerships program, sponsored by the Council on Undergraduate Research (CUR)--for summer study at the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire. Christine subsequently reported that her project "gave me confidence in my ability to perform as a chemist. . . . [I] decided that I would indeed be happiest in a field where I would constantly be finding answers and more questions to ask."

As Heinz Koch of Ithaca College--a faculty mentor for another student in the program--has noted: "You learn to become a scientist by doing science, not by studying science."

An undergraduate needs a lot of guidance by a caring professor--a lot, but not too much. Each student needs to own a project. Professors who see this as a valuable learning experience are everywhere. But the mother lode of such people is in the primarily undergraduate institutions where CUR is focused--the liberal arts colleges (like Occidental College, my own institution) and the comprehensive universities. We believe that our appreciation of research as an integral component of science education explains why we produce more than our share of future scientists, as amply documented by the Oberlin Reports of the 1980s and the Project Kaleidoscope analysis of 1991.

But what's in it for the professor, the ambitious researcher who expected academia to provide an environment primarily for personal scientific pursuits? Well, the professor receives both a teaching and a research benefit: pleasure in a student's learning experience, and progress in solving a research problem. The main costs to the instructor are two: The speed with which progress, as measured by publications, is achieved must be slower with undergraduates doing the research; and, because of this speed differential, the professor cannot really expect to be at the cutting edge of his or her field.

In the best cases, however, instructors can find themselves in the scientific avant-garde--trying high-risk but low-budget experiments that can launch whole new fields of investigation. Since undergraduates are frequently fearless and intrigued with the unusual, they are ready and willing to work ahead of current ideas and try to develop the next big area of research.

My experience and that of many professors I know invalidates the teaching/research dichotomy. I recommend research with undergraduate students highly to anyone who is looking for a way to increase the number of scientists of the future.

Laura L. Mays Hoopes is a professor of biology and associate dean of the faculty, Occidental College, Los Angeles, and immediate past president of the Council on Undergraduate Research.