Undergraduate research has long been recognized as an important component of the undergraduate education process for students capable of advanced study. As such, providing undergraduate research opportunities through independent studies, honor work, capstone projects and senior theses is a critical job duty of the college professor at a predominantly undergraduate, liberal arts college such as BSC.
In the sciences, and in astrophysics and general relativity research in particular, directed undergraduate research can make substantial contributions to the discipline. This is because advanced undergraduate students working with a professional in the field can enter a collaborative relationship that expands the student’s educational experience while providing critical knowledge, information and work for the professional.
The contributions to the discipline that arise from directed undergraduate research come in several varieties.
One of the basic facts of research in the sciences is that the Ph.D. is a starting place in the journey of making contributions to the field. In order to continue to make contributions to the field in the years after the Ph.D., new skills must be learned and new techniques will need to be applied to continue to make progress and scientific contributions. Directing undergraduate independent studies or projects in a new area of research for the professor can be one of the best ways for the professor to learn news skills and subject matter that will lay the basis for significant contributions to the field in the future. In this way, directed undergraduate research is the ultimate multi-tasking – it both advances the student’s education and sets up the professor for making contributions to the field.
It is well known that science progresses by a trial and error, or hypothesis – test – revision process. Not all approaches the scientist takes to a problem will be successful; in fact, for every “right” turn in a research program, there are often five “wrong” turns. One way in which students can contribute to research program of a particular science faculty member is to pursue an approach or avenue of research on a particular project.
On some occasions, it turns out that the approach the student takes is very successful and the professor picks up the approach and carries if forward. More often, the student takes an avenue which, in terms of a “publishable” result is fruitless, but in terms of helping determine the correct path is very helpful to the professor. Either way, both the student and the professor benefit, as the student gains a valuable lesson in the ways of scientific research and the professor develops a clearer picture of the problem at hand.
A significant part of this type of undergraduate research is student contributions to the “knowledge” of the research group. For example, a student research project in the sciences might be the development and testing of a new piece of equipment. This is truly scientific research, as no technical equipment works “right out of the box” without calibration and testing. Another example might be a student developing computer code that other students or the professor can use in approaching a problem. Both of these examples include work where no immediate “tangible” contribution to the field has been made but where the basis for contributions has been laid.
Unlike the humanities, undergraduate research in the sciences is almost always a highly collaborative relationship. Even when students work on an “independent” project, they are in weekly or sometimes daily communication with the professor mentoring the work. The reason for this is that undergraduate students, or for that matter, even graduate students, in the sciences do not have the “breadth” of knowledge and experience to pursue a problem in a truly independent manner. At the lowest level, ideas are almost always developed or refined in the act of communicating them with a mentor. At a more intense level, the mentor can suggest tests and lines to pursue to make progress when the student is stuck, which in real research, occurs at least once a week.
By mentoring the student’s “independent” project, the professor becomes part of the research process. It is the expectation in the sciences that the mentor and the student work out an understanding on how the credit for the work is to be shared. If the work develops into a publishable finished product, both the student and the mentor are credited by authorship on the paper and poster. If the work is to be continued, the mentor and student discuss how the work is to continue. Often, if the student is no longer interested in continuing the work, the mentor will pass the work on to a new student or continue the project himself. In this case, when a finished product is ready for publication, all the individuals who worked on the project are given credit for their efforts, usually in the form of multiple authors. (It is now common on very large projects for there to be over 100 authors on a paper.)
In any of these three ways in which a student’s work becomes part of a professor’s contributions to the field, the key is that the directing of undergraduate research has led the professor down the scientific path of discovery. Regardless of whether the student’s project is itself a “publishable” final product, the outcome of the collaborative process can influence the direction of future work or be developed by later students into a product that can be shared with the scientific community.