New Challenges in a Post-Boyer World
From Words to Action
But beyond the rhetoric, are students really doing undergraduate research- To determine exactly what the current situation is, we commissioned a survey for the Boyer reunion meeting in 2001, which we decided to publish as Reinventing Undergraduate Education: Three Years after the Boyer Report.
Interviewers contacted deans, vice provosts or vice presidents working with undergraduate programs in the 123 Research I and II universities (according to the old Carnegie classification) that offer baccalaureate degrees. Representatives from 91 institutions (74 percent of the total) responded. Follow-up telephone interviews with 40 academic administrators added to the data. It became clear that on many campuses no precise data exist—many of the answers were approximations, perhaps even guesses; in most universities, a lot may be happening, but no one is charged with keeping score. So the collected information must be considered approximate.
"Undergraduate research" is as much a catchphrase now as "student-centered research university," whether or not the practice at a given university lives up to the prose. In fact the institutionalization of undergraduate research is by no means complete. All research universities offer opportunities for supervised undergraduate research or creative activities. About half of them, according to the survey, enroll half or more of their students, including 16 percent that have "all or most" students involved. The other half have about a quarter or fewer of their students participating.
In most institutions, at least the most promising students have research opportunities, but those possibilities vary significantly from field to field. The laboratory sciences and engineering by far outstrip the social sciences and humanities. Sixty-two percent of the survey respondents reported engaging half or more of their laboratory-science students in research, and 44 percent reported half or more of their engineering students. On the other hand, only 25 percent of social science students and 21 percent of humanists engage.
Do we have hard evidence that undergraduate research creates a better educational experience? Not yet; it is too soon to measure. But anecdotal evidence is strong. Students claim it is their most important educational experience. They work with the best professors in real-life research situations; they have the exposure and attention from major professors that large classes and sections taught by teaching assistants lack. Some get the opportunity to present papers at conferences and author or share authorship of articles. The real question will be whether they then turn toward careers in science.
The answer is crucial. As of 2000, according to National Science Foundation data, 29 percent of graduate students in science and engineering were imported from other countries. The percentages ranged as high as 53 percent in electrical engineering and 47 percent in physics.
But now the world has changed radically. No longer can we take for granted the uninterrupted flow of doctoral students from around the world. The USA Patriot Act of October 2001 created at the very least serious bureaucratic obstructions, and it carries the threat of visa denial for international students. Besides, we know that security dangers could in fact prove real. Inevitably, recruiting from certain nations will become increasingly difficult. We therefore need to get serious about growing our own graduate students, starting with freshmen or even high school students. That is the way to ensure future graduate enrollments. There is an irony in this need to bind together research, graduate study and undergraduate study, since that is supposedly our mission in the first place.
But we are fooling ourselves if we pretend we have already succeeded in transforming undergraduate education. Although administrators claim commitment and although small cadres of researchers have embraced the cause, many faculty still do not believe—perhaps with good reason—that undergraduate teaching will count significantly in tenure and promotion decisions. And the real commitment of administrators, financial and philosophical, remains to be proven.
Better undergraduate education will not be free, and economic times are tough, far more stringent than when the Boyer Report was published. But budgets are a matter of priorities; if undergraduate programs are considered important enough, they will be supported. For the continuing strength of science in this nation, that support will be crucial; but will it be recognized?