undergrad research

Kathleen Archer Kathleen.Archer at MAIL.CC.TRINCOLL.EDU
Wed Oct 29 13:11:50 EST 1997

Just a few other thoughts on this subject.

I agree wholeheartedly with the responder whose reply began "An interesting
problem".  Undergrads require much more hand-holding than grad students,
don't have the concept of how to trouble-shoot and have only a few hours a
week to work.

I started out trying to have undergrads in my research lab do what I
thought would be simple DNA projects.  They got no where, although they
learned a lot.  Because they did not generate a lot of data and they felt
frustrated, especially since students in other labs were churning out reams
of numbers.
A better plan which has worked well for me is to identify a project which
is technically accessible - that is, an undergrad can learn to carry out
the experiment relatively quickly and can repeat it many times to get lots
of numbers.  Experiments that can be broken down into 4 hour blocks of time
are good.  For example, we were interested in the effect a chloroplast
mutant might have on other organelles in the cell.  We did enzme assays for
a variety of proteins which we had reason to think might be affected, and
for which reliable assays were known.  This went really well - the students
could grind up tissue, do their assays in an afternoon, and calculate
activities.  Gratification came soon after the effort in the lab.  The
information we gathered turned out to be very interesting and we have
continued to pursue it, so it was not busywork, but truly meaningful.

Techniques which are fussy, unreliable, have a multitude of steps or take
weeks to finish are not ideal for undergrads.  Granted, you will get the
occasional outstanding student who can handle those things, but face it,
most undergrads don't fit that description.  There is no reason to expect
undergrads to behave like grads.  They are taking their first baby steps in
science.  You don't put a 7-year old learning to ride a bike on a 20-speed
racing bicycle, you put them on a kid's bike with training wheels. Take
them step by step from easy to hard so they can build their confidence and
learn the fundamentals.

Kathleen Archer

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