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Council 2004-2005 Year-End Committee Reports

Committee on Research

Charge to the committee:

“Evaluate the quality and the opportunities for undergraduate research across the University.”

Our group met five times. We evaluated the opportunities available for undergraduate students at Penn, and we assessed the obstacles to finding an opportunity for those students interested in pursuing a mentored research project.

Our research included a discussion with the head of the CURF (Center for Undergraduate Research and Fellowships) and presentations by Dr. Rebecca Bushnell, the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, and Dr. Paul Allison from the Wharton School.

We started our work with a series of questions to be addressed:

1. What are the goals for undergraduate research at Penn?

2. What is our current situation with respect to undergraduate research?

3. How do we achieve these goals?

This report will address the following specific questions related to these issues:

1. What is the definition of undergraduate research? (honors thesis, mentored research internship, etc)

2. What is the current research experience for undergraduates at Penn? What are they told and how and when do they receive the information?

3. What proportion of students do we expect to have a research experience?

4. How do we compare to peer institutions with respect to the opportunities for undergraduate research?

1. What is the definition of research?

The committee supports a definition of research that focuses on the process and not the product. Much can be learned from the apprenticeship relationship with a faculty engaged in research. The definition needs to encompass both scientific and humanities based research. The committee strongly supports the ideas set forth by Dr. Bushnell in her Guidelines for Undergraduate Research Experience, including:

1. Common features of the undergraduate research experience should include: employing the methodology of the discipline, handling of primary materials or raw data and consultation with a mentor.

2. Documentation of the experience should take the form of a scholarly paper or artistic product.

3. Evaluation of the work should be assessed using a set of common factors across disciplines such as thoroughness, organization, rigor of analysis and knowledge gained.

2. What is the current research experience for undergraduates at Penn? What are they told and how and when do they receive the information?

The application package and freshman handbooks mention research but do not specify how undergraduates can find research opportunities. This situation was documented in a memo to Provost Chodorow from 1996 by a work group on engaging freshman and sophomores in research, yet little has been done to rectify the problem.

The committee evaluated the accessibility and thoroughness of the information available on the Penn website and found it lacking. The information is difficult to find on the web (i.e. the link to CURF is not obvious) and the information on the site is not presented effectively. CURF has a wealth of information on opportunities for research and fellowships for undergraduate students. This includes:

Grants and Prizes: the Nassau fund, College Alumni Society Research grants, the Rosemary Mazzatenta award, Benjamin Franklin scholars summer research funding, the Rose award, the Presidential award, the RES undergraduate research journal and Summer Research Internships and the University Scholars program. It also maintains a searchable database on faculty research projects. The contact at CURF informed us that the web information and the research directory are not as effective or inclusive as they might be due to lack of time and staff.

The Committee recommends additional financial support from the University to CURF to increase the staffing and provide the technical support to update the website.

3. What proportion of students do we expect to have a research experience?

This  data is very difficult for CURF to estimate the number of undergraduates at Penn who are currently engaged in research, either through a course (i.e. for credit), for compensation or on a volunteer basis.

Dr. Allison presented data from a spring, 2004 web-based survey of research experiences of students at Penn. This included 175 students engaged in a Pilot Curriculum designed to offer students opportunity for  individual research and scholarship. It also included responses from students who were not part of the Pilot Curriculum. Overall, 96% of the pilot students and 66% of the non-pilot students reported doing research of some type at Penn. In general, the satisfaction with the experience was quite high (between excellent and good). The survey results did not reveal that a large number of students wanted to do research but were unable to find an opportunity, and only 8% who did research reported that it was difficult or very difficult to find a research project.

Thus it appears that those students who are motivated can find an opportunity on the Penn campus. However, the question remains as to whether there are students who might have an interest if the information on how to pursue the option were made more readily available.

The Committee recommends that a survey be conducted to more accurately assess the proportion of undergraduate students engaged in research at Penn, and that this proportion is increased by 10-15% within the next five years.

4. How do we compare to other peer institutions with respect to the opportunities for undergraduate research?

The Committee members gathered information from the following peer institutions: Columbia, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, Cornell, McGill, and Syracuse. Our main concern was determining the accessibility of the information about undergraduate research opportunities. In general, Penn is comparable to all of the institutions reviewed, with a couple of noteworthy exceptions. Cornell and Stanford both had excellent websites allowing one to gain access to a thorough description of the possibilities for undergraduate research at the institution. Stanford has also instituted a series of courses called “pre-field preparation” in order for students to be eligible to participate in the Undergraduate Research Program. (This was a suggestion made by Dr. Bushnell during her presentation to the Committee as well.) Depending on the research plan, the URP, in consultation with the mentor, requires one or more courses on methodology and fieldwork issues. Another strength of the Cornell system is that schools and colleges not involved in significant undergraduate teaching, Veterinary Medicine for example, nevertheless maintain excellent websites highlighting opportunities for undergraduate research.  These sites are linked to a central web page for undergraduate research at the University. Considering the diversity of graduate and professional schools on its campus, Penn might also benefit from such an approach.

Web materials from these institutions can be found in the appendix of this report, online at

The Committee recommends that the website for CURF be substantially revised and made easily accessible to any student who might be interested in learning more about undergraduate research at Penn.

The Committee also supports the idea of initiating a series of courses or seminars designed for students who need more background in research methodology prior to engaging in independent, mentored research.

Committee on Research

Chair: Jennifer Pinto-Martin (nursing); Faculty:Francisco Gonzales Scarano (neurology/med), Ponzy Lu (chemistry), Michael Madaio (med), Peter Petraitis (biology), Jennifer Pinto-Martin (nursing), Bruce Shenker (pathology dental), Thomas Sollecito (oral med/med); Graduate students: Doug Metcalf, Jeffrey Niederdeppe; Undergraduate students: Richard Gaster (EAS ’06), Jesse Salazar (COL ’05); Ex officio: Perry Molinoff (vice provost, research), Andrew Rudczynski (executive dir research services).



  Almanac, Vol. 52, No. 4, September 20, 2005


September 20, 2005
Volume 52 Number 4


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