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Experts gather to share best practices for mentoring undergraduate researchers

The conference hosted July 24-25 by Elon University's Center for Engaged Learning featured keynote addresses from George Kuh and W. Brad Johnson and ongoing collaborative research from 26 institutions. 


Scholars from more than two dozen institutions converged on Elon University this week to share best practices for mentors as they help undergraduates cultivate their skills as researchers. 

George Kuh, director of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment, delivers the closing keynote for the Conference on Excellent Practices in Mentoring Undergraduate Research. (Kim Walker)

The Conference on Excellent Practices in Mentoring Undergraduate Research, hosted July 24-25 by Elon's Center for Engaged Learning, is the culmination of three years of work from faculty from 26 insitutitons. 

"Undergraduate research is powerful — we know that," said Peter Felten, director of the Center for Engaged Learning (CEL) at Elon. "What's been difficult for a lot of faculty is that they want to be mentors, but don't really know how to go about it."

The two-day conference offered the opportunity for six multi-institutional teams to present research in areas such as how mentoring relationships foster student development, how undergraduate research programs can be developed and expanded and how to enhance and evaulate the research students undertake. The 100 participants took in keynote addresses from W. Brad Johnson, a professor of psychology in the department of leadership, ethics and law at the U.S. Naval Academy, and George Kuh, director of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Asessement. 

The conference caps the three-year-long Reseach Seminar on Excellence in Mentoring Undergraduate Research, one of three seminars CEL is now leading. This seminar brought together 40 scholars across multiple disciplines, with the expectation that the work from the teams will be shared more broadly, such as in journal publications or even developed into books. 

In his keynote, Kuh underscored that undergraduate research has the potential to help propel students toward success during school, and after graduation. It teaches them how to synthesize information from multiple sources and explain the thought process they used to reach a conclusion, he said. 

"Never before have we expected more from an educated citizen," Kuh said Monday. "Today, there is less willingness on the part of employing organizations to say, 'come on in and we'll invest in you for six months.' More and more they need people who can come in and hit the ground running."

While more schools are developing and expanding undergraduate research on campus, there are still barriers to faculty participation and to participation by certain segments of the student population. 

Jessie Moore, associate director of the Center for Engaged Learning and associate professor of English, said one goal of the seminar and this week's conference is the help institutions and faculty make undergradate research opportunities more broadly accessible to underrepresented students. 

Many schools have honors programs that have built-in research opportunties and requirements, but schools may not offer the resources or pathways for students not in honors programs to conduct research during their undergraduate years. 

​"We know a lot of the benefits of participating in undergraduate research are really instrumental to a student's success," Moore said. "Making these opportunities available to a broader group of students – that's definitely a challenge."

Accessibility was a focus of a team that included Eric Hall, a professor of exercise science at Elon. That team looked at ways to be more inclusive of underrepresented student populations, such as students of color, low-income students and women, when it comes to undergraduate research. Minority students might experience reluctance to partner with a mentor of a different race or socioeconomic background, and might find a cohort of fellow researchers that doesn't reflect their background, the team found. 

Jenny Olin Shanahan, director of undergraduate research at Bridgewater State University in Bridgewater, Mass., said during a presentation session Monday morning that having a mentor a student can trust is key, particularly with these populations of underrepresented students. 

Shanahan referred to the Sunday night's keynote address by Johnson, who said that mentors should be a "safe harbor" for the undergraduate researchers they work with, and who suggested practicing "cultural humility" to help create a connection with students. 

"If they can have a mentor they can trust, it just dissolves so much of that tension," Shanahan said. 

The collaborative nature of the undergraduate research mentorship seminar, as well as all of CEL's research seminars, helps produce networks of scholars that extend beyond the three years they participate with CEL, Felten said. 

"The networks and the scholarship don't stop," he said. "There will continue to be research. There will continue to be publications. What we want is for this scholarship to go out into the broader world."

Owen Covington,
7/25/2016 12:05 PM