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Undergraduate Research at Penn

Peter Conn, Interim Provost


I. Why should undergraduates do research?

For at least the past dozen years, successive Penn administrations have expressed a strong belief in the value of undergraduate research, and have worked to expand this educational opportunity. It is worth pausing to restate the assumptions that underlie that commitment.

Penn’s faculty are, typically, gifted and hard-working teachers. At the same time, the faculty are deeply dedicated to research—whether in the library, the laboratory, the Internet or the field. Enhancing the variety of ways through which undergraduates can participate in meaningful research therefore gives those students access to a distinguishing feature of the academic and intellectual life of our University.

Undergraduate research should not in the first instance be ordered toward preparation for graduate study. Fewer than 10 percent of our graduates will eventually receive the Ph.D. Rather, we encourage students toward research to give them a chance to develop their critical skills to the fullest. Those skills will serve them superlatively well in their subsequent careers, regardless of the details of their vocation.

Only through meaningful research can students achieve the sense of mastery that accompanies a mature engagement with the kinds of questions that are embedded in scholarly activity. Many students report on the exceptional satisfaction they derive from a successful research project. In science and technology, they may find themselves listed as co-authors on a paper in a scholarly journal; in the social sciences, they may be invited to join field work in any of dozens of sites all over the world; in the humanities, they may develop a genuinely original understanding of some historical or cultural phenomenon.

Beyond the fuller realization of their own academic potential, students engaged in research also report favorably on the interactions they have with faculty. The higher educational literature is replete with findings that students describe meaningful interaction with faculty as a chief feature of the most satisfying undergraduate experience. Few activities better enable such interaction than research.

II. What does undergraduate research comprise?

The College Committee on Undergraduate Education has usefully deliberated on this important issue. Here is an excerpt from the committee’s report.

The term “research” will have different meanings in different fields. It is possible, however, to identify certain common factors that should define the undergraduate research experience.

•   Employing the methodology of a discipline. In the research process, undergraduates learn to employ the basic tools of one or more disciplines. These skills are best learned in courses in the major.

•   Handling primary materials or raw data. At the heart of the research experience is the student’s grappling with the “stuff” of scholarship or the creative act. This could involve conducting an experiment, collecting data, examining primary and secondary sources or working with a medium of artistic expression.

•   Learning from a mentor. The undergraduate research experience is informed by consultation with a mentor, who may be a faculty member, graduate student, curator, postdoctoral fellow, research associate, or some other sort of expert. The student may learn through an independent project or serve in an apprenticeship relationship to that mentor. Students may also work as part of research groups on joint projects.

•   Confronting a problem or question of interest to practitioners in the field that the student would like to pursue. While the activities of the undergraduate research experience certainly vary from discipline to discipline, they should be shaped by the framing of a question or problem to be solved.

•   Thinking outside of the classroom. The undergraduate research experience takes the student outside of the classroom. Even though that experience may be framed within an undergraduate course, the work itself is engaged in outside of the classroom and beyond the pages of the textbook.

•   Documenting the process and the results of one’s work. Documentation normally takes the form of a scholarly paper or an artistic product such as a painting, a model, a script or performance, accompanied by a paper describing the project, the creative process and the aesthetic challenges that had to be addressed.

III.  What initiatives are currently underway?

The examples here are merely illustrative of the literally scores of programs and projects sponsored by the University and the four Undergraduate Schools.

•   The University Scholars program provides an unusual academic environment for intellectually dynamic students who have already demonstrated their commitment and dedication to research. Through mentoring, research funding and scholarly events, the program encourages and supports students to make the most of their undergraduate years, not only with in-depth research, but also by making an early start in graduate and professional courses, ranging widely or, in some cases, focusing narrowly on their curricular choices.

•   The Center for Undergraduate Research and Fellowships (CURF) was founded five years ago as a central clearinghouse for research opportunities for undergraduate students and to help them in the application process for post-baccalaureate fellowships. It is the administrative home of the University Scholars program (see above) and the Benjamin Franklin Scholars program. In addition, CURF maintains a database of research opportunities all undergraduate students may access.

•   McNair Scholars is a federally funded program designed to enable students to successfully enter graduate school and earn doctoral degrees. Penn McNair Scholars are provided research opportunities, mentoring, travel to conferences and graduate schools, and a generous stipend. The McNair Scholars Program is designed for first generation and income eligible students, as well as students from groups that traditionally have been underrepresented at the doctoral level: African American, Latina/Hispanic, or Native American.

•   In the College of Arts and Sciences, all departments are prepared to offer research experiences that meet the guidelines articulated for the pilot curriculum and in the College Committee on Undergraduate Education statement to undergraduate majors (and some others) who seek them. Previously, this had been done in many departments just for honors majors. Most new programs coming to the attention of the Curriculum Committee address research as a desirable or even required component of the major.

•   SEAS has a decades-old commitment to undergraduate research through a two-semester senior project. While partially motivated by professional  accreditation requirements, the student-faculty relationship and the motivation to apply engineering skills to a novel problem, enterprise, design or project are of overarching importance. Senior projects stress communication as well as content, and often include professional judging, awards and ceremonies. Moreover, even before the senior year, SEAS undergraduates are encouraged to undertake independent studies courses by specifically seeking out faculty with research opportunities.

•   Wharton promotes undergraduate research mainly through two programs: the Wharton Undergraduate Research Scholars Program (WURS) and the Joseph Wharton Scholars Program (JWS), both under the Undergraduate Division’s Director of Research and Scholars Programs. The Program Directors of WURS are the Vice Dean and Associate Vice Dean for Doctoral Programs, indicating the connection between undergraduate and graduate student research and the Director of Research and Scholars Programs. Now in its second year, the Wharton Undergraduate Research Scholars Program enlists faculty to propose research topics and to serve as mentors to students who are chosen through a competitive selection process.  

•   The Nursing School has a required course in research methods, and a scholarly writing course (Senior Inquiry) in the senior year. The latter course educates students to do critical literature reviews, develop a table of evidence, and write a scholarly paper under the direction of a faculty mentor, some of which have been published. Some students have used this course to support their own research projects, either through funding as described above or as part of the faculty member’s program of research.


As these examples demonstrate, we are already doing an impressive collective job in promoting and supporting undergraduate research. But we can do more and better. In a subsequent article, I will review some of the proposals and ideas currently taking shape as Penn’s faculty, students and administration work together to fulfill this central educational objective.



  Almanac, Vol. 51, No. 27, April 5, 2005


April 5, 2005
Volume 51 Number 27


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