Studies have demonstrated the positive effect of student participation in undergraduate research. In fact, the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) has identified it as one of ten “high-impact practices” highlighted in various reports from the LEAP Initiative. In their forthcoming AAC&U report, The Impact of Engaged Educational Practices: What Research Shows About Learning Outcomes, Completion, and Quality, authors Jayne Brownell and Lynn Swaner note that undergraduate research is the most frequently and effectively used high-impact practice for underrepresented students in higher education. The authors also cite Ernest Pascarella and Patrick Terenzini’s 2005 meta analysis of higher education research, in which they report that undergraduate research has a “positive influence” on “persistence and degree completion,” and “elevates degree aspirations…and the likelihood of enrolling in graduate school.”
And although undergraduate research requires a significant time commitment from faculty, this practice is being embraced by institutions across the country. In response to a question on the 2009 Faculty Survey on Student Engagement that asked, How important is it to you that undergraduates at your institution work on a research project with a faculty member outside of course or program requirements?, 56 percent of respondents answered “important” or “very important.”
As I planned this issue, I wondered if any colleges in the Gulf Coast area were involving their students in undergraduate research projects related to the ongoing oil spill crisis. I contacted Xavier University of Louisiana and learned about Anil Kukreja, a professor and chair of the school’s business department, who is mentoring two students participating in a collaborative research project involving Xavier and Seedco Financial, a nonprofit community development lending group that has established a fisheries assistance center to serve local commercial fishermen in the region. The initial goal of the project was to provide loans and grants to local fishermen and other small businesses that were affected by Hurricane Katrina. The partnership between Xavier and Seedco Financial started in September 2008 with funds from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and was designed to support the Southeast Louisiana Fisheries Recovery Resource Center over a two-year period. As Kukreja explains, “The recent oil spill in the Gulf has changed the focus of the project, as many of the fishermen are now not able to conduct their businesses.”
Sondra Willis, a senior management major who plans to go to law school when she completes her coursework at the university, and Brianna Bell, a junior sales and marketing major who hopes to become an entrepreneur after graduation, are the two students working with Kukreja and Seedco. The students’ tasks include interviewing fishermen and other small business owners, gathering and analyzing data, and creating a process flowchart that will help Seedco in managing its resources more effectively. “The situation here is very fluid and we are working closely with Seedco in making sure that we do what is best toward achieving project goals,” Kukreja reports.
When I asked Brianna and Sondra about their work, they described the challenge that comes from learning in a real-world setting. As they explained in their e-mail message, “Most fishermen really aren’t accessible because a lot of them don’t have technology (such as e-mail, computers, and cell phones). Most just have a home number and [they] aren’t home a lot. Also, some information that we are asking for might be hard for them to attain and/or understand.” These students, however, feel that many of their classes have helped prepare them to respond to Seedco’s needs. They are putting into practice skills learned, for instance, in their statistics and service management classes. “We feel that [working on this project] will help us to reflect on endeavors or jobs that we might take in the future.” This is but one example of the kinds of rich learning environments that undergraduate research can provide.
Learning to deal with the unscripted problems presented by the Gulf oil spill has been challenging for the most experienced politicians and scientists, so Brianna and Sondra’s project is providing a learning experiences that will be particularly meaningful in their future endeavors. In a forward George D. Kuh has written for The Impact of Engaged Educational Practices, he notes that, “High-impact practices are developmentally powerful because they harness and concentrate empirically validated good practices in education. These practices are at the heart of a liberal education. Equally important, all the evidence so far suggests they benefit all students.” Engagement with high-impact practices such as undergraduate research gives students the opportunity to test and build on their classroom learning, which will prepare them to make good decisions for an ever-evolving and complex world.