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Scaffolded Structuring of Undergraduate Research Projects

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2014 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Indianapolis, Indiana

Publication Date

June 15, 2014

Start Date

June 15, 2014

End Date

June 18, 2014



Conference Session

Best of NEE

Tagged Division

New Engineering Educators

Page Count


Page Numbers

24.1068.1 - 24.1068.15



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Paper Authors

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Dirk Colbry Michigan State University


Katy Luchini-Colbry Michigan State University

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Katy Luchini-Colbry is the Director for Graduate Recruiting at the College of Engineering at Michigan State University, where she completed degrees in political theory and computer science. A recipient of a NSF Graduate Research Fellowship, she earned Ph.D. and M.S.E. in computer science and engineering from the University of Michigan. She has published nearly two dozen peer-reviewed works related to her interests in educational technology and enhancing undergraduate education through hands-on learning. As a volunteer for Tau Beta Pi, the Engineering Honor Society, Luchini-Colbry facilitates interactive seminars on interpersonal communications and problem solving skills for engineering students across the U.S.

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Scaffolded Structuring of Undergraduate Research ProjectsMentoring undergraduate research assistants is both difficult and rewarding. Students come tothe project with different backgrounds, motivations, skill sets and work ethics. While engagingin undergraduate research can be a powerful learning experience for students,1 expendingresources to train undergraduates does not always translate to increased research output for thefaculty mentors.This paper presents a three-stage, scaffolded approach to training undergraduate researchassistants, based on experiences and lessons learned in mentoring more than 50 undergraduatesin STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) research projects. This three-stepmethodology reduces faculty effort while preserving the learning experience for newundergraduate researchers, and helps faculty quickly assess the interests and skills of new studentassistants.Stage 1: In the first week, students are assigned a specific task (like downloading and installingsoftware to support their project). While the first stage tasks are meant to be simple, in reality itoften takes extra time to get things working at first as students set up accounts, figure out what todo first, get familiar with the lab, etc. If students can get though this stage quickly, they have theopportunity to spend more time going in-depth in the later stages. If stage one takes longer thana week, the mentor will sit down with the student and re-evaluate the project to make sure thegoals are reasonable (particularly in light of the student’s previous experience) and adjust asneeded.Stage 2: During the second stage, students will have a small (but complete) project that they cansee through from start to finish. Examples include analyzing a small dataset or doing initialbenchmark tests. More experienced students can often finish a Stage 2 project in a few days,although the pace will vary depending on the project and what skills students need to learn. If ittakes more than two weeks for a student to complete stage 2, the mentor can sit down with thestudent and re-evaluate the project goals and adjust the pace if needed.Stage 3: This is the student’s main project, and in most cases this project will be open-ended. The student and mentor will work together to estimate how much can be accomplished inthe available time, and the pace and goals for this stage will vary depending on the projects andthe student’s skills and interests. In the best case, students can complete their project from startto finish and contribute enough of their own ideas to lead to a research publication.This three-step methodology is easy for faculty to implement and scaffolds students’ introductionto the research domain. Highly motivated students have the opportunity to gain skills andresponsibility as they move through the three stages of this mentoring plan. For students withless experience or interest, the first two stages offer a valuable learning experience – even if thestudents never progress to the final stage of the project. Overall, this approach minimizes facultytime and effort while providing appropriate, scaffold learning experiences for undergraduateresearch assistants.1. Kuh GD. High-impact educational practices: what they are, who has access to them, and why they matter. Association of American Colleges and Universities; 2008.

Colbry, D., & Luchini-Colbry, K. (2014, June), Scaffolded Structuring of Undergraduate Research Projects Paper presented at 2014 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, Indianapolis, Indiana. 10.18260/1-2--23001

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