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Using A Mixed Methods Approach To Investigate Students’ Perceived Learning And Challenges Faced During A Summer Undergraduate Research Experience

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2009 Annual Conference & Exposition


Austin, Texas

Publication Date

June 14, 2009

Start Date

June 14, 2009

End Date

June 17, 2009



Conference Session

ERM Potpourri

Tagged Division

Educational Research and Methods

Page Count


Page Numbers

14.1307.1 - 14.1307.15



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Paper Authors


Olga Pierrakos James Madison University

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OLGA PIERRAKOS is an assistant professor in the School of Engineering at James Madison University. Dr. Pierrakos holds a B.S. in Engineering Science and Mechanics, an M.S. in Engineering Mechanics, and a Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering from Virginia Tech. Her interests in engineering education research center around recruitment and retention, understanding engineering students through the lens of identity theory, advancing problem based learning methodologies, assessing student learning, as well as understanding and integrating complex problem solving in undergraduate engineering education. This latter project is funded through her recent NSF CAREER award. Her other research interests lie in cardiovascular fluid mechanics and K-12 engineering education.

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Julie Trenor Clemson University

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JULIE MARTIN TRENOR is an assistant professor of Engineering and Science Education at Clemson University. Dr. Trenor holds a Ph.D. in Materials Science and Engineering from Virginia Tech and a bachelor's degree in the same field from North Carolina State University. Her research interests focus on factors affecting the recruitment, retention, and career development of under-represented students in engineering. Prior
to her appointment at Clemson, Dr. Trenor served as the Director of Undergraduate Student Recruitment and Retention for the Cullen College
of Engineering at the University of Houston, and was principal investigator for the NSF Research Experiences for Undergraduates program. She is currently serving the first of a three year term as President-Elect, President, and Past President of WEPAN, Women in Engineering ProActive Network.

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NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

Using a Mixed-Methods Approach to Investigate Students’ Perceived Learning and Challenges Faced during a Summer Undergraduate Research Experience


Undergraduate research experiences offer many benefits to our students and serve as a primary mechanism to recruit students to graduate school and expose them to the practice of research, which also enables students to learn problem solving in the context of discovery and innovation. This paper employs a mixed-methods approach and a Community of Practice (CoP) theoretical framework to investigate how participation in summer undergraduate research promotes situated learning. The mixed-methods approach, incorporating pre- and post- survey instruments as well as weekly self-reflective journal entries were utilized to study undergraduate researchers (N=10) participating in an NSF-funded Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program at a large research university. Positive learning outcomes gains pertained to communication skills, validation of career path, experimentation skills, valuing cross-disciplinary expertise and lifelong learning, and gaining confidence in working independently. Low ranked learning outcomes pertained to (a) leadership skills, (b) project management skills, (c) understanding ethical issues, and (d) identifying problems. Further, qualitative data analysis revealed that undergraduate researchers faced a number of challenges and frustrations pertinent to (a) scheduling, (b) time management, (c) running experiments with limited familiarity to instruments and equipment, and (d) at times limited guidance from mentors. This study has implications for better understanding and evaluating successful undergraduate research experiences (sponsored and unsponsored) with implications for recruiting and retaining students for graduate studies and research careers. Discussion of students’ learning outcomes and challenges are presented, as well as implications for improving REUs. This paper can aid REU program directors, coordinators, and faculty advisors to improve their program and assessment efforts.


With global competiveness driving many changes in engineering education, it is imperative that engineering educators provide students with experiences that promote innovation, creativity, and problem solving. Undergraduate research experiences provide one venue for students to learn these critical skills. Over the last two decades, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has been one of the biggest proponents of undergraduate research and currently supports hundreds of REU (Research Experiences for Undergraduates) programs totaling over $300 million. In particular, REU program funds two types of grants related to undergraduate research: REU sites consisting of six or more undergraduate researchers typically participating at an eight to ten week summer experience, and individual supplements for a principal investigator to involve an undergraduate in ongoing work for a NSF-sponsored grant. Additionally, NSF Engineering Research Center supplements fund an average of nine students and therefore essentially function as sites 1. The REU program solicitation 2 states:

Pierrakos, O., & Trenor, J. (2009, June), Using A Mixed Methods Approach To Investigate Students’ Perceived Learning And Challenges Faced During A Summer Undergraduate Research Experience Paper presented at 2009 Annual Conference & Exposition, Austin, Texas. 10.18260/1-2--4963

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