Preparing Graduate Students and Undergraduates for Interdisciplinary Research

Saturday, 14 February 2015
Exhibit Hall (San Jose Convention Center)
Nancy Stamp, Binghamton University - SUNY, Binghamton, NY
Colleges and universities need to provide students with training and experience in: a) STEM interdisciplinary research (IDR), b) the fuzzy areas of responsible conduct of research (RCR), and c) the mentor-mentee relationship. We developed workshops that combine the three “content” objectives, that is, IDR, ethical decision-making for RCR and mentor-mentee relationship; thus, promoting explicit reflection on how these topics relate. To provide undergraduates and graduate students (the primary mentors of the undergraduates) with the same framework for their subsequent research collaboration, we conducted the workshops in parallel for the undergraduate mentees and their graduate student mentors. Half of the students were life science majors and half from other STEM disciplines (physical sciences, engineering and computer science). Two-thirds of the graduate students (64% of 47) had not served as a primary supervisor for an undergraduate researcher, and two-thirds had not received training as a mentor for undergraduates. For each of the sessions in the workshop for the graduate mentors, the graduate students reported overall gains in their skill levels of 21%, 24%, and 23% for IDR, RCR and mentoring skills, respectively. Of the undergraduates (n = 107), 61% had no previous research experience, and 91% had no training about the mentor-mentee relationship. For each of the sessions in the undergraduate workshop, the undergraduates reported overall gains in their skill levels of 33%, 27%, and 31% for IDR, RCR and mentee skills, respectively. When asked a year later at the end of their IDR team projects, all of the graduate students and the vast majority (95%) of the undergraduates said they really liked the IDR experience and felt they received sufficient preparation for that. In sum, combining the three sessions, that is, how to do IDR, ethical decision-making for RCR, and the mentor-mentee relationship, into a workshop helped students see how these topics relate and in particular the value of that understanding for successful collaborative interdisciplinary research. Moreover, designing the workshops in parallel gave the undergraduates and their graduate student research mentors a common foundation for handling the potential pitfalls of IDR, for navigating the fuzzy areas of RCR and for overcoming mentor-mentee difficulties, so they could have a productive and enjoyable IDR experience together.