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Researching the researchers: Physics professor's study looks at factors in undergraduate research

For four years in a row now, Creighton University has been recognized by U.S. News & World Report for its prowess in promoting undergraduate research.

Even before the recognition and rankings, though, the undergraduate research tradition at Creighton has extended further into the institution’s past, encouraging budding scholars to pursue their interests and passions with under the mentorship of dedicated faculty. Now, a new study spearheaded by one of those faculty members is proving that, indeed, Creighton is doing undergraduate research in physics and chemistry right and to the benefit of the students involved.

“If there’s one conclusion we can make in this study it’s that at Creighton, the research undergraduates are doing satisfies the quality standards in the disciplines of physics and chemistry,” said Patricia Soto, PhD, an associate professor of physics in the College of Arts and Sciences. “It’s a very positive revelation that we’re providing a place where our students can work on a diverse set of skills to help them get a job, go to medical school or graduate school and be successful.”

Working with five colleagues at three other institutions that closely match Creighton’s profile (private, primarily undergraduate), Soto said the study aimed to look at factors determining what kind of research presentations undergraduates in physics and chemistry did — be that papers, oral presentations or poster presentations — and whether students presented at the campus, regional or national level.

The collaboration emerges from the National Science Foundation’s ADVANCE program seeking to increase participation and foster gender equity in science, technology, engineering and mathematics research at institutions across the country.

Factors on student research examined in the study included faculty rank, gender of the student and of the faculty mentor, the type and venue of the presentation. The study is a first attempt at creating a metric by which undergraduate research can be quantified and qualified and one Soto and her colleagues hope can establish a baseline to continue monitoring the undergraduate research experience.

“In the physical sciences, at the level of research-intensive universities, the established metric is the authorship of papers,” Soto said. “But at the undergraduate level, the research piece has two components: the creation of knowledge and the training of students. So we want to see if there are other metrics we can use to assess that undergraduate research. Papers alone cannot tell us the whole story there. We want to see them develop those other skills.”

When it comes to gender, Soto said the study, which will be published in the scientific journal PLOS One in coming months, had another welcome finding.

An initial study 25 years ago on research and gender showed a wide differential between male and female faculty pursuing projects in the physical sciences. This latest analysis has shown that the gap has completely closed at Creighton and the other three institutions for which the data was aggregated.

“That’s a very valuable outcome,” Soto said. “If we can say that gender is not something that’s factoring into whether students pursue and present research, especially for disciplines like physics and chemistry, that is a huge jump from 25 years ago. We can say that we’re serving, supporting and stimulating, equally, both female and male students. It’s very good news for Creighton and institutions like Creighton to say that we are encouraging that gender balance and providing opportunities and occasions for undergraduate research to all.”

Soto and her colleagues are hopeful this initial offering will help encourage more interest in creating metrics to measure the efficacy of undergraduate research and to further encourage gender balance.

“The question for higher education has been, ‘How do we measure the impact of undergraduate research?’” Soto said. “We haven’t quite found a metric yet that can fully answer that, but this paper is a contribution toward establishing that metric. It’s the first step to quantify the impact this research is having on our undergraduates. At Creighton, I think we’ve always known that it’s having an impact. We are just now beginning to say how strong that impact is and can be.”

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