Let students join you in the lab

Why are undergraduates still kept at arm’s length from the world of research? asks Stuart Hampton-Reeves

May 29, 2014

Many undergraduates’ work has been published, and those on our scheme almost always get payment or academic credit

Universities often vaunt the importance of research-led teaching, and they are quite right to do so. But there has to be more recognition that this means more than basing courses on the lecturer’s own publications.

If the UK is serious about expanding growth, it needs to find a way to fund home students to pursue postgraduate degrees – as the chancellor promised to do in his March Budget. It also needs to ensure that its undergraduates participate meaningfully in research. This not only enhances their student experience, it also equips them with skills relevant to work, such as independence, critical thinking, problem-solving and initiative. Why wait until PhD level to equip the next generation of innovators in the knowledge economy?

Wider participation of undergraduates in research is not a revolutionary concept. Its contribution to economies and communities, however, is not universally recognised. Critics have contended that undergraduate research is not “real”, and that such students are not sufficiently able or skilled to undertake work. There have also been allegations that it amounts to exploitation because undergraduates make cheaper research assistants.

But many undergraduates have published their research in top journals, and the undergraduate research programmes that the British Conference of Undergraduate Research supports almost always result in the student getting payment or academic credit for their work.

As long ago as 1998, the Boyer Commission called for large universities in the US to take advantage of their research-related resources, integrating undergraduate education into the continuous process of enquiry that already involved postgraduates, postdoctoral researchers and faculty.

Fast-forward more than 15 years and the US Council on Undergraduate Research, a national organisation representing more than 900 colleges and universities, targets the best students for its annual “Posters on the Hill” event at Capitol Hill in Washington DC, which is co-sponsored by the American Chemical Society, one of the largest scientific societies in the world. I attended this year’s event, where I saw undergraduate students presenting their work to members of the House of Representatives and the Senate.

Undergraduate research is now firmly embedded in the US. Most US universities have an Office of Undergraduate Research, and this year the week of 14 April was designated “Undergraduate Research Week” across the country.

But are we making the most of the undergraduate research opportunity in the UK? Research has suggested that a lot of current practice in the UK still keeps students at arm’s length from the world of university research, and more needs to be done to give undergraduate research the respect it deserves. Yet our undergraduates have been undertaking research for years, and there is an increasing number who are now publishing and presenting their work at international conferences.

In 2011, the first British Conference of Undergraduate Research (of which I am chair) was established by a coalition of 50 universities at the University of Central Lancashire with the aim of highlighting the important work their undergraduates were doing. We recently held our fourth annual conference at the University of Nottingham, where 350 students presented their research through posters and oral presentations.

We also recently staged our second “Posters in Parliament” event, inspired by Posters on the Hill. In this, more than 40 undergraduates from 25 UK universities exhibited their work to attending parliamentarians – including shadow Cabinet Office minister Chi Onwurah and former Labour Cabinet ministers David Blunkett and Ben Bradshaw. And I can confidently say that all the attendees left very impressed.

What was most satisfying, however, was the attitude of the students. Challenging them with research has made them more engaged and more enthusiastic. Working with that kind of student is the very reason many of us chose a career in higher education, and their energy and innovation will be crucial for the UK’s future success.

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