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Providing Apprentice-Based Research Experiences

Science Education Priority

Traditional classroom teaching can be an efficient way to share scientific knowledge with students. But it isn’t always the best way to engage them or encourage them to pursue science careers.

Studies suggest that the knowledge-based approach may be one reason that students who initially plan to pursue science degrees are far less likely to stick with their major of choice than students in other disciplines.

There is a remarkably effective way to enhance the lecture-and-lab approach to teaching: apprentice-based research experiences. Unlike classroom experiences, which focus on facts, formulaic lab experiments, and individual performance, apprentice-based research experiences require students to ask good questions, explore a range of possible solutions, and work collaboratively to discover new data. It is both real science and an exceptional learning experience.

These experiences—from summer research projects to academic-year undertakings—have been shown to dramatically increase students’ skills, interest, and confidence in pursuing a career in science. For schools with robust and well designed apprentice-based research programs, more than 90 percent of students report positive gains from their projects. More important, students who have undergraduate research experiences are highly likely to continue their path in the sciences. This is vitally important as the nation faces critical shortages of STEM graduates in the coming decade.

To create and improve apprentice-based research experiences, HHMI supports several key approaches:


1. Real Research

Real research is eye-opening. Challenging, messy, and sometimes joyful, it offers students a chance to make their mark in the scientific world by discovering something that was previously unknown.

They Did It: Through the Rainforest Expedition and Laboratory (REAL) project at Yale University, 16 students each year spend several months collecting and analyzing endophytes, fungi that can be used in medicines and biofuels, on campus and in Quito, Ecuador. During the first four years of the project, students isolated several dozen previously undiscovered organisms, and published eight papers in peer-reviewed journals.

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2. Meaningful Mentor-Student Relationships

Students who develop strong relationships with faculty mentors benefit from specific research advice and guidance, plus lasting support throughout their academic careers.

They Did It: At Harvard University, the Increasing Diversity and Education Access to Sciences (IDEAS) program links students with faculty members during their freshman year. Together, they work on research projects for the student’s entire undergraduate career. Of the first 30 students who graduated since the program first received HHMI funding in 2002, 29 are pursuing advanced degrees in science or medicine.

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3. Synthesize Findings

Work in the lab may comprise the bulk of a student’s research experience, but making time to understand, present, and share results is a meaningful way to complete a project. It provides insight into scientific careers and responsibilities.

They Did It: After students in HHMI’s Exceptional Research Opportunities Program (EXROP) complete their research, they travel to HHMI headquarters where they present their work in poster sessions, meet with HHMI scientists and fellows, and hear from leading researchers. Of the 359 alumni from the program who were surveyed in 2009, 93 percent are still pursuing science education and careers.

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Apprentice-based research opportunities beyond HHMI

HHMI is the country’s largest private funder of science education, but the Federal government also provides major support for science education, including apprentice-based research experiences. The National Science Foundation’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program is the largest government program devoted to this work. REU is designed to allow schools to offer summer research experiences for 10 students and one faculty mentor, with modest student stipends of $3,000 to $5,000. There are currently more than 650 active REU sites supported by $186 million in funding.

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