Jen Hamel and David Vandermast co-author study about student learning in study abroad courses that include undergraduate research experiences

Hamel and Vandermast, together with co-authors from Dartmouth College and Grinnell College, published a study in the fall 2021 issue of Scholarship and Practice of Undergraduate Research, a peer-reviewed journal of the Council of Undergraduate Research.

Elon associate professors of biology Jen Hamel and David Vandermast co-authored a study in the fall 2021 issue of Scholarship and Practice of Undergraduate Research, a journal that focuses on student learning during study abroad courses that include undergraduate research experiences.

The article, “Undergraduate research abroad: shared themes in student learning from two models of course-embedded undergraduate research in field biology study abroad courses,” was co-authored by Hamel and Vandermast, along with Hannah ter Hofstede, Adrienne Gauthier and Prudence Merton of Dartmouth College and David Lopatto of Grinnell College. Hamel and Hannah ter Hofstede are joint first authors of the article.

This study describes two upper-level field courses in tropical ecology that travelled in Central America – one from Elon and one from Dartmouth – during which students conducted short-term undergraduate research projects. Student learning was evaluated through focus groups, reflective journaling and surveys. Students from both courses reported learning gains unique to conducting undergraduate research in a global context, including curiosity inspired by novel environments and valuing the expertise of local experts for site-specific questions. Students from both courses also reported that their perceptions about who conducts research changed as a consequence of their interactions with the researchers and instructors in the courses.

Elon students commented on the positive effects of interactions with host-country individuals, noting that these interactions helped them feel welcome, safe and inspired. Home stays with host families at the beginning of the course also appeared to motivate Elon students to clarify their personal values.

With respect to research, Elon students reported an understanding that it can be a collaborative activity that happens in a community, and they also reported increased confidence about their ability to do research. Six of the eight Elon students sought out additional, post-course research experiences.

Undergraduate research and global learning are both considered to be “high impact practices,” and there is growing interest among academic institutions and researchers in what and how students learn when such practices are combined. Designing courses with two high-impact practices requires consideration of how the design of each high-impact practice may constrain or interact with the other, as well as effects on student learning. Such effects may be parallel, synergistic, or contradictory.

For example, the duration of cultural immersion at each site in a study abroad course is likely to influence the degree of student development in intercultural competence, and the durations of undergraduate research experiences are correlated with student learning gains about research.

Understanding the learning gains associated with course-based undergraduate research is an active area of research for Hamel and Vandermast.

Scholarship and Practice of Undergraduate Research is the official journal of the Council of Undergraduate Research, a national organization of academic institutions that supports the activity of undergraduate research. Funding and support for parts of this study were provided by the Elon Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning, and helpful feedback was provided by the Elon Center for Research on Global Engagement Community of Practice.