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Seminar on undergraduate research mentoring enters second year

Dozens of professors representing 20 colleges and universities returned to campus July 26-31 for the second year of a three-year research seminar hosted by Elon’s Center for Engaged Learning.

Ruth Palmer,  far right, from the College of New Jersey, participates in one of the many discussions as part of an Elon University Center for Engaged Learning research seminar focused on mentoring undergraduate research.

What do award-winning mentors do that sets them apart? What mentoring practices support students’ identity development? How can institutions and undergraduate research programs assess the effectiveness of faculty mentors?

These are some of the questions dozens of professors representing 20 colleges and universities from across the country and the world set out to answer July 26-31 as part of Elon’s 2014-16 Center for Engaged Learning Seminar on Mentoring Undergraduate Research.

Organized in six cohorts, participants came together on the Elon campus for the second year to explore topics related to key characteristics of excellence in mentoring undergraduate research, the connections between mentoring relationships, various student development outcomes and faculty development. They met for the first time last year to develop and plan research projects to be conducted throughout the following year at the participants’ own institutions.

After identifying 30 mentors who have been recognized for their excellence in mentoring at the national and institutional level and eight mentees, Elon University Professor of Exercise Science Eric Hall and his group spent the past 12 months conducting interviews to determine what characterizes award-winning mentors. They spent most of this week transcribing and coding data.

Elon University professor Eric Hall, left, was among dozens of participants in a three-year seminar on mentoring undergraduate research led by the Center for Engaged Learning.

“We came up with 8-10 questions to do interviews with these people to see themes, commonalities and to try to figure out what is it that they do differently,” he says. They have also been working on a manuscript about best practices of undergraduate research mentors based on existing literature. Once they identify the top 10 best practices, he added, the group will work on finding ways to put them into practice in a useful way.

While there is plenty of evidence that undergraduate research positively impacts student outcomes, relatively few investigations have focused on the faculty mentor’s role in supporting student learning and engagement or on what constitutes a productive student-mentor dynamic in the context of undergraduate research.

“CEL’s seminars support multi-institutional research,” said Peter Felten, executive director of the Center for Engaged Learning. “This kind of research benefits participants and institutions, and also contributes in important ways to scholarship and practice in the field. We couldn’t do this without the leadership of Jessie Moore from CEL and our four outstanding seminar leaders—Maureen Vandermaas-Peeler (Elon University), Paul Miller (Elon University), Brad Johnson (Johns Hopkins University) and Laura Behling (Knox College).”

Elon University professors Maureen Vandermaas-Peeler and Paul Miller, center, are among the four faculty members representing three different institutions co-leading the seminar.

The goal of this year’s seminar was to further develop inter-institutional collaborations for large-scale studies, a task that can be daunting.

“The process takes a lot of individuals moving forward at their own institution while juggling life and workload, too,” said Elon Associate Professor of Exercise Science and Chair of the Department of Exercise Science Caroline Ketcham, who is part of the cohort exploring mentoring models. “We had a lot to figure out this week. The group members I am working with are all dedicated to the process and care about faculty and student development. It matters that we all have similar goals in mind and seem to work well together.

“We will need to set solid plans to carry us forward, but it is helpful to have perspectives from many institutions, faculty/administrators from different fields to help build the most effective methods to explore our questions.”

Seminar participants will reconvene on campus next summer to share their year two results, as well as plan continuations of their work.

While they are still processing data, Jenny Shanahan, director of undergraduate research at Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts who is part of Hall’s cohort, said their findings so far have been a confirmation that all the work she and her counterparts have been doing is not happening in a vacuum.

“All these other people are working toward some of the same goals out of love, deep care for students. That’s affirming,” she says. “The movement of undergraduate research is growing and all of these people are a part of it, and it’s changing higher education.”

Keren Rivas,
7/30/2015 9:55 AM