The SUPER Program: A Research-based Undergraduate Experience

Monday, 15 December 2014: 5:45 PM
Jessica Gilman Ernakovich1,2, Randall B Boone1,3, Claudia M Boot1, Karolien Denef1,4, Jocelyn Marie Lavallee1, John C Moore1,3 and Matthew D Wallenstein1,3, (1)Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, CO, United States, (2)Division of Land and Water, CSIRO, Glen Osmond, Australia, (3)Department of Ecosystem Science and Sustainability, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, CO, United States, (4)Central Instrument Facility, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, CO, United States
Producing undergraduates capable of broad, independent thinking is one of the grand challenges in science education. Experience-based learning, specifically hands-on research, is one mechanism for increasing students’ ability to think critically. With this in mind, we created a two-semester long research program called SUPER (Skills for Undergraduate Participation in Ecological Research) aimed at teaching students to think like scientists and enhancing the student research experience through instruction and active-learning about the scientific method. Our aim was for students to gain knowledge, skills, and experience, and to conduct their own research. In the first semester, we hosted active-learning workshops on “Forming Hypotheses”, “Experimental Design”, “Collecting and Managing Data”, “Analysis of Data”, “Communicating to a Scientific Audience”, “Reading Literature Effectively”, and “Ethical Approaches”. Each lesson was taught by different scientists from one of many ecological disciplines so that students were exposed to the variation in approach that scientists have. In the second semester, students paired with a scientific mentor and began doing research. To ensure the continued growth of the undergraduate researcher, we continued the active-learning workshops and the students attended meetings with their mentors. Thus, the students gained technical and cognitive skills in parallel, enabling them to understand both “the how” and “the why” of what they were doing in their research. The program culminated with a research poster session presented by the students.

The interest in the program has grown beyond our expectations, and we have now run the program successfully for two years. Many of the students have gone on to campus research jobs, internships and graduate school, and have attributed part of their success in obtaining their positions to their experience with the SUPER program. Although common in other sciences, undergraduate research experiences are rare in ecology. We feel that development and implementation of these types of active-learning, research based programs can help universities to produce undergraduate researchers capable of contributing meaningfully to research, and to greater societal issues by enhancing their problem solving and critical thinking skills.