How Can REUs Help Retain Female Undergraduates?

REUs INCREASE ENROLLMENT IN GRADUATE PROGRAMS AND RESEARCH CAREERS

Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REUs) can increase the rates at which women and under-represented minorities enter the highest levels of IT research and development. REUs lead to greater understanding of research, confidence in research skills and general mastery of the discipline, and awareness of career paths requiring an advanced degree. As a result, students become more interested in pursuing an advanced degree.

CRAFTING A PROJECT FOR UNDERGRADUATE SUCCESS

Student confidence and motivation to enter graduate school improve with positive research experiences. Positive REUs give students the feeling that they have made a real contribution, despite their lack of computing research background. Ideas for creating such an experience come from The University of Wisconsin’s “Entering Mentoring” manual for training scientists to mentor (see URL below.) It recommends projects that:

  • are multi-faceted, but with a reasonable scope for the time frame

  • are feasible in relation to the student’s existing skills, but also build on them

  • have built-in difficulties that will be faced after the student has developed some confidence

  • generate data or analysis that the student can present orally or in writing

  • go beyond cookbook experiments or free programming labor

Faculty and graduate mentors should talk to students about their skills and interests, mentor them about scientific inquiry, and establish clear expectations for project outcomes.

 

MODELS AND ELEMENTS OF A POSITIVE RESEARCH EXPERIENCE

Whether part of a formal program or a special opportunity for individual students, REUs can take several forms. For example, summer experiences can take place at another institution or on a student’s own campus, where the social and academic setting is familiar. Academic-year experiences can occur as part of, or in addition to, the regular course load. Many faculty advisors bring undergraduates into their labs to work with their graduate students

No matter what the model, certain components help motivate students to enroll in an advanced degree program:

  • A collegial, supportive relationship with the faculty advisor and/or graduate mentor

  • A large amount of time spent on research

  • Clear communication of students’ readiness and outcome goals (e.g., presentation of results) from the outset, making students feel well-prepared

  • Student independence increases as the research process progresses

Students also are more likely to apply to graduate school when their research experience includes guidance on choosing a graduate program, writing a strong application, and setting expectations for the graduate experience and research careers.

 

NSF REU SUPPLEMENTS: AN EASY WAY TO SUPPORT A BUDDING RESEARCHER AND FUTURE COLLEAGUE

The National Science Foundation makes it easy to support an undergraduate researcher. You can ask for a supplement for almost any NSF grant – or one held by a colleague – to support an undergraduate researcher with a substantial stipend. Ask your program officer for details.

HOW CAN YOU SHOW UNDERGRADUATES THE BENEFITS OF A RESEARCH CAREER IN COMPUTING?

When advertising REU opportunities, it’s helpful to know what motivates students to get involved. For example, many students participate in REUs because they want help in making career decisions; these students also are more likely to consider an advanced degree as a viable option, according to research by SRI International. A valuable tool for communicating the benefits of a research career is a slide show entitled, “Why choose a Ph.D. in CS?” available on the Computing Research Association’s website: http://www.cra.org/highlights/student.html.


References

  • Handelsman, J., Pfund, C., Milller Lauffer, S., & Pribbenow, C. (2005). Entering Mentoring: A Seminar to Train a New Generation of Scientists. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
  • Hunter, A.-B., Laursen, S.L. & Seymour, E. (2006, February). The Benefits and Costs of Faculty Engagement in Undergraduate Research and their Sources. Presented by Elaine Seymour at the conference To Think and Act Like a Scientist: The Roles of Inquiry, Research, and Technology in the Precollege and College Years, Texas Tech University, Lubbock, TX.
  • Russell, S. (2005). Evaluation of NSF Support for Undergraduate Research Opportunities. 2003 NSF-Program Participant Survey: Final Report (SRI International). Available at http://www.sri.com/policy/csted/reports/university/index.html#uro.

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Authors: Lecia Barker and J. McGrath Cohoon