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Non-STEM Students Equally Benefit from Undergraduate Research, Study Finds

July 17 2015

A 2014 STAR Scholar demonstrates his research.
A 2014 STAR Scholar demonstrates his research next to his research poster.

Undergraduate research has been shown to have a positive effect on student retention and achievement, but most of the work to understand the benefits of undergraduate research has focused primarily on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) students. Drexel University researchers discovered that non-STEM students can benefit from undergraduate research experiences as much as STEM students, an area of study that has not been carefully explored until now.

The findings came from surveyed students who participated in Drexel’s STAR (Students Tackling Advanced Research) Scholars Program, which pairs first-year students with faculty mentors to conduct research during the summer after their freshman year. In the 12 years since Drexel first started the program, over 900 students have worked with 300 faculty members on a multitude of projects.

These students came from various departments and colleges across the University, though most were in Drexel’s Honors Program. After the students evaluated their experiences in the STAR Program, the Drexel researchers examined the participant demographics and student outcomes.

“We found that both groups of students feel that they make learning gains in all areas studied, with very few differences in the types or amount of gains made.  What this suggests is that undergraduates from all disciplines can benefit from an opportunity to engage in research as part of their training,” said Jennifer Stanford, PhD, an assistant professor in the College of Arts and Sciences.

Stanford worked with Kevin Smith, PhD, a postdoctoral research fellow; Suzanne Rocheleau, PhD, associate dean in the Pennoni Honors College and director of the Office of Undergraduate Research; and Jaya Mohan, assistant director in the Office of Undergraduate Research to conduct this research. They released their findings in “Early Undergraduate Research Experiences Lead to Similar Learning Gains for STEM and Non-Stem Undergraduates,” a journal article that was published in “Studies in Higher Education.”

According to the article, students reported the highest gains in the ability to work independently, explaining a project to people outside their field, preparing a poster to present their research, understanding what everyday research work is like and comfort in discussing concepts related to their field of interest with others.

Additional findings suggested few differences reported by both types of students who evaluated the personal and professional gains they made from their undergraduate research experience. STEM students were more likely to indicate higher learning gains in how to calibrate instruments and in understanding connections among scientific disciplines, and to report a higher interest in working in a science laboratory. All students were equally likely to report wanting to conduct research to gain hands-on experience, explore their interest in their field of study and enhance their resume.

According to Stanford, it is known that students from all majors that participate in a research opportunity are more likely to remain in their majors and graduate. The sooner the students can conduct research, the better.