Thursday, June 14, 2012

Guest Post: Lisa Winter on Undergraduate Research Advising: Making the Most of a Summer Project

Undergraduate Research Advising: Making the Most of a Summer Project

This week's guest blogger is Lisa Winter. Lisa Winter is a Hubble fellow at the University of Colorado studying active galaxies and their relationship to galaxy evolution through feedback processes.


It’s June, the spring semester just ended, and it’s now prime time for starting on summer undergraduate research projects.  After working with a number of undergrads over the past few years, there are a few principles that I keep in mind when developing and working with undergraduates.  

Getting started on the right foot - the first few weeks.  While it can be tempting for a busy advisor to assign lots of reading assignments at the beginning of the summer, this can sometimes do more harm than good.  Pouring over technical writing for a week or two may be crucial, but I find that a better approach is to get students started right away with some productive tasks with a clear beginning and end, interspersed with smaller chunks of reading.  This builds confidence, keeps the student’s interest, and also gets them curious to find out more about what the big picture is.  The most important element in the beginning of the project, however, is to set clear and achievable goals.  Have a plan of what can be accomplished in three months and set some milestones to be reached at regular intervals.

Continuing the momentum – the middle of the summer. During the middle of the summer, you want to make sure you are keeping the student(s) motivated.  Make sure to offer encouragement!  When a student does a good job, don’t hesitate to point this out.  Building confidence is one of the most important responsibilities of a research advisor.  One of the challenges in developing their confidence is to find the right balance between independence and direct supervision.  Students need a chance to learn on their own while having someone around who will be able to step in when they get stuck or need an answer to a big picture question.  Assigning specific tasks and then checking in at regular intervals or setting up regular meetings (e.g., once a day for the hands-on or a few times a week) helps a great deal.  If you have more than one student working with you or a few students working in the department on similar topics, setting up group meetings with weekly readings to discuss is a great way to build student confidence (they get to explain and discuss their research/background material in a peer group) and develop a sense of community.  Plus it is a lot of fun for the students and the advisor!

Making it count – wrapping up the project with a clear end goal.  It’s important to have a clear end date and goal in sight.  At CU, I initiated a poster session where students presented the results from their summer projects.  Developing a poster is a great way to assimilate what was learned and accomplished in a succinct package.  Additionally, presenting a poster allows students to explain the work to a wider audience, including peers with no a priori knowledge of their specific project.  Even better, this lays the groundwork for an AAS poster, ensuring that the poster is ready well before the time-consuming academic responsibilities of the semester begin.  The end of the summer is also a time for an honest assessment of the student’s progress and future goals.  If the student didn’t seem to like the work very much, talk about what they did and didn’t like.  If they loved research and did a fantastic job, think about ways to keep up the momentum from the summer.  This is a good time to think about continuing the work as an honor’s thesis, if possible/applicable.  In either case, the semester is just about to begin so this is a great opportunity to offer career advice and general information on opportunities that the student can explore in the coming year (e.g., internships, scholarships to apply for, teaching opportunities).  Always end on a positive note with lots of possibilities for the future!