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training-409584_1280David Orenstein, Brown University

College students who do summer research often say it was time well spent, but a new study offers hard data on exactly which components and experiences proved valuable and how.

The study involved 450 participants in the Summer Research Early Identification Program of The Leadership Alliance, a national partnership among universities and the private sector that provides training and mentorship in research for students from underrepresented backgrounds. Brown University houses the alliance.

The new study in the journal CBE-Life Sciences Education focuses on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics undergraduates who engaged in summer research through the program between 2013 and 2015.

Researchers gave detailed surveys to the students both in their first week of the 8- to 10-week summer research program and again in their last week. The surveys asked not only how students’ research skills and professional perspectives may have changed, but also how they spent their time in the program and about experiences they had with faculty, postdoctoral, and graduate student mentors.

Mentors, data-mining, and grad school

In the aggregate, students left the program feeling at least somewhat more confident on every one of the 16 research skills the surveys covered. But some leaps were significantly greater than others.

From relatively low initial rates, the proportion of students reporting confidence in skills such as mining data or using statistics software essentially doubled. But students reported relatively high initial confidence in understanding research overall and in ethical issues of research, so the increases in those areas were less dramatic.

Over their summers, students also made significant gains—to greater than 90 percent—in the proportion who professed understanding of the graduate school application process and graduate school life. They also, the results showed, expanded their horizons about career possibilities in their field. But their career intentions either inside or outside of academia, already fairly high, barely budged.

Through the data, students revealed clear distinctions about what kinds of interactions with mentors meant the most. Students who reported that mentors showed interest in their research and supported their ideas were significantly more likely to report satisfaction with their mentors than students for whom mentors demonstrated knowledge and expertise in their field, or provided constructive feedback on their academic career development.

Lab work vs. the big picture

Another set of key findings arose from correlating the amount of time spent in different summer research activities with changes in impact measures such as research skill confidence and understanding of graduate school and career pathways. For example, students that spent more time preparing for their research—reading prior studies, engaging in lab group discussions, framing research questions and goals—gained significantly in every impact measure, while time spent doing laboratory work didn’t show significant influence on any of them.

Mentor quality, meanwhile, proved to be highly powerful almost across the board.

Lead author Medeva Ghee, assistant professor of the practice in the Brown University School of Public Health and executive director of the Leadership Alliance, says many of the results suggest that students most highly value the chance to engage in the big picture of research. They want to be involved in understanding and planning research, not merely carrying out its mechanics.

“It’s that process of the mentor letting them know they do have great ideas to contribute,” Ghee says. “They are not just a bystander in the research project. They are actively engaged in asking the research questions and thinking about the different problems they want to solve.”

A surprising finding, Ghee says, was that the demographics and backgrounds of students and which kind of college they attend seemed to matter little to how well they responded to the program. The preparation received by students through the Leadership Alliance uniformly benefits their skill development and aspirations for continued training in STEM disciplines, she says.

Ghee says the data also figure integrally in how the alliance now engages faculty mentors. “What the students are telling us is helping us to share effective mentoring approaches with faculty,” she says. “We are going to use this data to inform these conversations.”

Read the American Society for Cell Biology, CBE-Life Sciences Education Article research.