NAGT > Publications > In the Trenches > Building Success into a First-Semester Undergraduate Research Course

Building Success into a First-Semester Undergraduate Research Course

Deanna van Dijk, Calvin College

One could think of reasons why engaging first-semester undergraduate students in research is difficult. Students lack content knowledge and research skills, can be intimidated by the research process, and might not even recognize that doing research is a valuable activity. On the other hand, benefits of early student research experiences are well documented: 1) there are direct benefits to students (Lopatto 2004), 2) authentic inquiry is an effective pedagogy in science education (Singer et al. 2012), and 3) early research experiences can attract or retain students in STEM disciplines (Lopatto 2007; Taraban 2008). The challenge of creating an early undergraduate research course is to overcome the difficulties in order to realize the benefits.

From 2011 to 2014, the First-Year Research in Earth Sciences (FYRES) project has engaged 81 firstsemester Calvin College students in research on Lake Michigan coastal dunes. The research experiences are substantive, as demonstrated by first-year student coauthors on 18 conference presentations and 17 research reports. Other measures of success are also important, such as high student satisfaction levels and increased numbers of students continuing in STEM fields.

How does the FYRES project create a successful first-semester undergraduate research experience? Many real challenges have been met by building a variety of support structures into the FYRES course.

Student success begins with attracting suitable students to the experience. "Suitable" is not defined by content knowledge (no prior knowledge is assumed) or disciplinary interest (both science and non-science students are welcome) but in terms of a basic level of interest and motivation for participating in a non-traditional science course. An online application process ensures that students have at least enough motivation to complete the application. Recruiting materials avoid specialized terms such as "geology" or "geography" which are unknown disciplines to many high school students. Course credit fulfilling a general education physical science requirement provides a recognizable value to participation for non-science students. Science-oriented students are attracted to the early opportunity to gain disciplinary experience and help with vocational decisions. Most students are attracted by the promise of hands-on learning and an atypical setting: the Lake Michigan coastal dunes.

Because no prior content knowledge or research skills are required for student participation, the course structure uses the five-hour lab periods, three class periods per week and assignments early in the semester to build the foundation for the substantial research project in the last half of the semester. The pre-research-project lab activities introduce students to different dune environments, methods, equipment, and data analysis. Dune content knowledge is built during classes that often refer to what students have experienced at the dunes. A short paper assignment has students finding and reading reputable sources about dune topics and practicing a scientific style of writing.

A well-scaffolded process for the principal research project enables students to construct the content of their experience within a supportive framework of clear guidelines. Research is done in teams of first-year students with leadership from upper-level students (FYRES Research Mentors) and the faculty instructor. Authentic and meaningful research topics are provided to the research teams after consideration first by faculty (for topic suitability) and then by Mentors (for background understanding). To foster a sense of topic ownership, research teams are constructed based on preferences indicated by students. An annotated bibliography assignment builds student content knowledge (see resource list). Each research team is guided through a research design process to plan appropriate methods of data collection and analysis. Student teams implement their research designs over three weeks. Course requirements that teams will communicate their results lend weight to the authenticity and value of the research. Students are provided with assignment guidelines, two lab periods, and mentoring towards creating a conference-style poster and oral presentation. At the end of the semester, the student research teams give their oral presentations and present their posters at a campus-wide poster fair. Both audiences include people outside of the class, such as other college faculty and students, community members, and dune managers.

Utilizing FYRES Research Mentors meets two challenges of providing effective research experiences for a class of 24 first-year students. The Mentors make the field research and teaching logistically possible by driving vehicles and working with small groups of students at different sites. The Mentors also reduce the intimidation that first-year students may feel if asked to lead the research effort (Caristi and Gillman 2002). (The students may not realize that they are given increasing responsibility for making research decisions as the semester progresses.) A Mentor-student ratio of 1:4 (6 Mentors, 24 students) has worked effectively for the early-semester labs as well as the research teams. The Mentors are supported in their work by a two-day training session prior to the semester, guides to upcoming activities provided in advance, weekly one-hour group meetings, and individual mentoring from faculty as needed.

Because the semester length and student inexperience make it too difficult to include a written report, the FYRES Mentors continue the project work into the following semester. Typically, Mentors do additional reading and data analysis to ensure the research is complete. Mentors also prepare a research presentation for a regional conference. The first-year students are invited to attend the conference (actual participation varies by year) and each student receives a printed copy of the final research report.

The support structures built into the FYRES course are effective for enabling first-semester undergraduate students to complete a substantive geoscience research experience. Weekly journal entries and an exit questionnaire show student awareness of how much has been accomplished and what it means to be a geoscientist for a short time. Comments from students include "This course turned out to be the best class I took this semester. Initially I thought that I would not 'fit in' or be as enthusiastic as other students with environmental studies or science as their majors, but I'm pleased to say that I thoroughly enjoyed the class" and "I'm leaving this class feeling like I could see myself working somewhere in this field."


Caristi, J. and R.A. Gillman. "Engaging First-Year Students in Mathematical Research." Council on Undergraduate Research Quarterly 23, no. 2 (2002): 95-98.

Lopatto, D. "Survey of Undergraduate Research Experiences (SURE): First Findings." Cell Biology Education—A Journal of Life Science Education 3 (2004): 270-277.

Lopatto, D. "Undergraduate Research Experiences Support Career Decisions and Active Learning." Cell Biology Education—A Journal of Life Science Education 6 (2007): 297-306.

Singer, S. R., N. R. Nielsen and H. A. Schweingruber, eds. Discipline-Based Education Research: Understanding and Improving Learning in Undergraduate Science and Engineering. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2012.

Taraban, R. "What is Undergraduate Research, and Why Should We Support It? In Creating Effective Undergraduate Research Programs in Science: The Transformation from Student to Scientist, R. Taraban and R.L. Blanton (eds.): 3-10. New York: Teachers College, Columbia University, 2008.


First-Year Research in Earth Sciences (FYRES): Dunes: Retrieved in March 2015 at

van Dijk, D., 2014. Building Content Knowledge in a Student Research Team. Retrieved in March 2015 at