STEM Central

A Community of Practice for NSF STEM Projects

Undergraduate Research Experiences For STEM Students: Successes, Challenges, and Opportunities

Undergraduate research has a rich history, and many practicing researchers point to undergraduate research experiences (UREs) as crucial to their own career success. One of the most prominent opportunities for undergraduate research has been through the National Science Foundation’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates program, but many other funders (large
and small) have contributed to the opportunities available. Organizations such as the Council on Undergraduate Research and the National Conferences on Undergraduate Research have
provided a showcase for undergraduate work and a network for faculty to learn from each other about UREs.

There are many ongoing efforts to improve undergraduate science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education that focus on increasing the active engagement of students and decreasing traditional lecture-based teaching. UREs have been proposed as an opportune way to actively engage students and may be a key strategy for broadening participation in STEM. Multiple reports have focused on the potential high impact of UREs and the often limited availability of the experiences. These reports often call for an expansion in UREs to allow for greater access to a wider array of students. Current efforts are working to increase the number of students participating in UREs and to increase the diversity of those participants.

The National Science Foundation commissioned this study by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine to examine what is known about UREs and, if possible, to identify best practices that should be applied to future UREs. The committee was also asked to discuss the needs of involved faculty and administrators, to examine costs and benefits, and to
provide recommendations for research and practice. The committee approached its analysis of UREs by considering them as part of learning system that is shaped by forces related to national policy, institutional leadership, and departmental culture, as well as by the interactions among faculty, other mentors, and students. The committee also considered UREs in the context of the goals for students and what research on learning says about how such experiences should be designed to reach those goals. Many existing studies that provide information on how students learn can inform URE designers.