Sunday, May 15, 2011

Access to research courses for credit

I've been having an ongoing discussion with a colleague about access to research opportunities for undergraduates. The top undergrads have their pick--REU programs at lots of different universities and labs, research for credit at Prodigal U, research for pay anywhere (easiest at Prodigal U, though). Undergrads with weak track records (ie low GPA) have a much harder time. Our department has a GPA cutoff of 3.0 to enroll in our research for credit course. Students with a lower GPA can find someone to pay them, but that can be more of a challenge when competing with much stronger students.

Thus far, I have had really great undergrads in my lab. As a TT prof, I pretty much only take top students who are enthusiastic about joining the lab, since I don't have the time or resources to waste on reluctant or completely non-productive students. I don't expect publication-quality work from an undergrad (though it sure is nice when it happens!), but I do expect them not to waste my supplies and samples doing pointless or incorrectly implemented experiments after a reasonable amount of training.

My colleague feels strongly that students who want an opportunity to do research should be allowed to do so. This colleague says we should encourage those interested in science, and doesn't want to be a gatekeeper. (I should note that this person does NOT and never has supervised the research course for credit).

I tend to agree with Prodigal Department's policy--a weaker student is unlikely to get much out of an independent research experience if they can't learn concepts in a more structured class. I know that there are some professors who would take "free" labor in the lab, regardless of prior track record, so I am sure that opening up the research course to all comers probably would not be a capacity issue. I know that as a research supervisor, I would be unlikely to give a meaty project to a weak student.

I don't think it is good to set up a student in a situation where they cannot (or are unlikely to) succeed. I don't think just anyone can do research--in order to get anything out of it, students need prior preparation. A whole summer of repeating cookbook experiments or washing glassware might help out a labor crunch in the lab, but won't do much to develop an undergrad scientist (or give them a taste of real research). This is something better left for a paid lab worker, not an undergrad research experience for credit. Having some sort of entry standard in a for-credit experience protects both the student and the professor, in my opinion.


Anonymous said...

I have to agree with your colleague based on personal experience. I myself was not a stellar undergrad student on paper (graduated with barely a 2.9 GPA), but I generally took 15 hours of science most semesters, especially when trying to finish up the last year. AND I had a job to help pay for non-tuition related expenses. Most professors recognized that I was intelligent, but just didn't have time to make all As and Bs in classes like O-chem (*still shudders*).

My grades weren't reflective of the fact that I couldn't "learn concepts in a more structured class". They were reflective of the fact that I didn't have time to memorize the different names of all the cytokines in my immunology class, that I was doing my best to keep up with studies and work, and that chemistry courses were weed-outs for pre-meds, with 60% of the class earning a C-average or below.

Professor in Training said...

Two comments for the price of one ...

1. I'd be more interested in which courses they got good grades rather than an overall GPA. I don't care if students fail a course in the history of basketweaving.

2. I graduated from my undergrad degree with a 2.1 GPA mostly because I hated the professors and the material and was bored. Someone gave me a chance to dabble in research after I graduated and I found that it was something that interested me and that I was good at. I went back to school and caught up on the stuff I needed before heading to grad school. I now have a PhD and am a reasonably successful junior faculty at an R1 institution.

Look beyond the transcripts.

prodigal academic said...

Thanks for the comments. I appreciate that GPA isn't everything (I got my own C's in my day, and some of them were in my major). The truth is that I am actually more likely to take a chance on a low GPA grad student than an undergrad, since the presence of a barrier, no matter how slight, tends to remove the people trying to game the system. It is not terribly unusual for students seeking to lighten their load to look into the research course, thinking it would be easier than studying and problem sets (which is totally not true for most people).

In my (limited) experience so far, students truly interested in research who fall below the GPA limit (especially if their grades in science are OK or trend up) can find someone willing to give them a chance, just not in a for credit course. It is far easier to fire an employee than to kick someone out of a class they are enrolled in if it doesn't work out.

GMP said...

I generally only recruit kids who did really well in my class.

But, when recruiting sight unseen, it's hard -- I suppose I would have to look at the GPA, perhaps in the major if you will, because, really, what else can you look at for an undergrad? They don't have lots on the resume to go by. Perhaps that's what Prodigal was talking about -- recruiting kids you don't know well already, which is typically done through these college-wide REU initiatives.

But I agree with PiT and Dr. O that once you get to know students, you realize that many are very smart and the GPA may look the way it does due to different circumstances. But that does require one to know the student first.

Namnezia said...

I actually ask interested undergrads to volunteer in the lab for a semester. Typically this means shadowing another lab member, attending lab meetings and, if so motivated, doing some simple experiments. This doesn't really impact anybody's time too much and after the trial semester it becomes obvious if this would be a good undergrad to admit into the lab full time, usually for an honors project.

Hermitage said...

I also diagree with the assumption that a student who does poorly in 'structured' coursework will not do well in the lab. I am the exact opposite, I learn the literature and foundational basis for my labwork quickly and efficiently because I am seeing it applied and that makes much more sense to me. I have always, and continue to, struggle with traditional coursework.

This learning style is unacceptable in the ivory tower and people like me get ground out, not because we are stupid, but because no one gives us a chance. I was lucky to have an entirely too high opinion of my research abilities, which lead to my fighting tooth and nail for the opportunity to work in the lab. I was lucky to have faculty who were willing to let me stick my foot in the door. All had very good things to say about me, which is really the only way I got into graduate school.

TL;DR, give a sub 3.0 a chance! They might surprise you.

prodigal academic said...

Thanks for the comments--GMP is correct. I am talking about undergrad students who are not known to the research supervisor. In the research course, students who don't have someone lined up will be assigned a lab that has indicated they would take a student for this course. The students pick projects from abstracts, but may not meet their supervisor until right before starting work.

If a professor wants a student in their lab, it is easy to get them in (there are no prerequisites for any course that can't be waived with the permission of the instructor). But this only works for students who have a relationship with a professor. Prodigal U is a very large school where not all of the students realize they should or know how to have relationships outside of the classroom with their professors. The research course mechanism enables the stronger students to get research experience even without a relationship with the professors in the department.