By Wisconsin Center for Education Research, School of Education, University of Wisconsin–Madison
A National Academy of Sciences committee whose members include Janet Branchaw and Eric Grodsky, both on faculty at the University of Wisconsin–Madison School of Education and principal investigators at its Wisconsin Center for Education Research (WCER), released a study examining evidence on undergraduate research experiences. Branchaw and Grodsky are among 16 experts from across the country who were invited to join the committee in 2015.
“In recent years, colleges and universities across the United States have rapidly expanded undergraduate research experiences as a strategy to increase students’ interest and persistence in STEM subjects,” states Branchaw, assistant professor of kinesiology and director of WISCIENCE, a science education and engagement institute on campus. “However, support to track the number and types of experiences, and to assess the results, have not kept pace.”
Branchaw, who directs the largest federally funded undergraduate research program on campus and chairs the National Science Foundation’s leadership committee on undergraduate research experiences in biology, has developed and studied undergraduate research programs for more than 15 years.
“The National Science Foundation sponsored the study to learn how research experiences affect undergraduate education,” says Grodsky, professor of sociology and educational policy studies. “We reviewed a lot of literature and promising evidence that these experiences benefit students, but found the evidence far from persuasive.”
While the committee members agreed that they believe research experiences can be transformative, Grodsky’s expertise in statistical methods and causal inference helped them determine that “more comparative data from well-designed studies is needed to support that belief and to better understand which practices are most effective.”
Branchaw and Grodsky did not know each other before meeting at the Undergraduate Research Experiences for STEM Students: Successes, Challenges and Opportunities’ first committee session in Washington, D.C. “I was surprised to see somebody else from my university,” states Branchaw. “We quickly introduced ourselves and began comparing travel plans and our experiences on campus.” UW–Madison is the only institution with more than one person serving on the committee.
Though it is unclear how committee members are selected, Grodsky says selecting members of differing academic disciplines was important for the committee’s task. “Here we had scientists building and conducting science education programs for undergraduate students,” he said. “The committee needed the knowledge and tools of education experts and social scientists to analyze and understand the human impact of these programs.”
A third UW–Madison contributor to the report is Christine Pfund, also a WCER researcher and director of one of its newer projects, the Center for the Improvement of Mentored Experiences in Research (CIMER). Because mentoring was singled out by the committee for its importance in STEM education, it commissioned Pfund to write an article on mentoring that provided baseline content for a chapter in the report.
Pfund studies research-mentoring relationships and trains research mentors across science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine. She is one of five investigators selected by the National Institutes of Health to establish a National Research Mentoring Network. Pfund and Branchaw have a long history of collaborating on training development and the study of mentoring relationships.
“Chris is widely recognized as a leader in mentoring and has a following all her own,” says Grodsky. “We were very fortunate she was able to contribute her expertise to the report.”
According to Pfund, “Mentoring has become somewhat of a ‘sweet spot’ for UW–Madison, which is well positioned to become a national leader in the field.” Under her leadership, an important goal for CIMER is to advance the “science of mentoring” at UW–Madison and across the nation.