Early Involvement in Research: Developing Graduate Students as Research Mentors

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  • 8/10/2019 Early Involvement in Research: Developing Graduate Students as Research Mentors

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    Early Involvement in Research: Developing Graduate Students as Research MentorsBickel, A. & Schneider, K.R.University of Central Florida

    ABSTRACT

    The Learning Environment and Academic Research Network (LEARN) is a STEM living-learningcommunity established in 2011 at a large research university. LEARN provides early researchexperiences and layered mentoring by undergraduates, graduate students, faculty, and staff withina small learning environment. While each factor plays a role in the programs success, what makesthis program unique is the formal involvement of graduate students as research mentors (i.e., notfaculty). Each year, twenty graduate mentors guide LEARN participants through a 12-weekapprenticeship that exposes them to discipline-specific research and professional socialization.Prior to the start of the apprenticeship, training for the graduate students addresses fosteringmentoring relationships, facilitating critical thinking, and handling challenges. To assess thetraining, a pre-posttest is given to the graduate students. Significant gains were shown inunderstanding mentoring benefits, information-fluency skills, and ways to foster critical thinking.

    Furthermore, focus groups with the LEARN participants have shown the mentoring to be avaluable asset to the students; however, some students reported difficulties with their mentors. Tocombat this, improvement in the training has been a goal of the program as it has developed.Early signs of overall program success include higher retention rates and GPAs of LEARNparticipants when compared to a matched control. Future plans include expanding the assessmentof the graduate mentors to include both focus groups and a survey that will elicit best practicesand outcomes of mentorship.

    CONTENT

    IntroductionUndergraduate research is thought to be one of the most impactful experiences within higher

    education (Brownwell & Swaner, 2010). Often, considerable university resources are allocated toprovide this opportunity to students (Hunter, Laursen & Seymour, 2007). The specific benefits ofundergraduate research have been well validated in literature, including increased interest ingraduate education, confidence, critical thinking, communication skills, and career clarification(Lopatto, 2004; Hunter, Laursen & Seymour, 2007). Providing these experiences remains a highpriorityparticularly in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fieldsbecausethe research process facilitates STEM career interest and pursuance of graduate education(Adedokun, 2010). One of the most critical determinants of the experience as an undergraduateresearcher is the mentee-mentor relationship (Brownwell & Swaner, 2010).However, due to thehigh demands on faculty time, the availability of faculty mentoring in undergraduate research islimited (Behar-Horenstein, Roberts, Dix, 2010).

    Undergraduates often require more time for training than faculty can provide (Horowitz &Christopher, 2013). Aware of these time constraints, faculty members often acknowledge theirinability to adequately train or interact with the undergraduate researchers (Adedokun, 2010).This is especially true at large research institutes where faculty members also mentor graduatestudents and post-doctoral associates.

    In order to increase the number of students involved in research, other models of mentoringundergraduates should be explored. One possible solution is to formally recruit graduate students

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    as research mentors. This model might be ideal for first and second year (i.e. freshmen andsophomores) research students who are nervous about the overall research experience and may bemore comfortable formally reporting to a graduate student. Traditionally, graduate students oftenwork with undergraduates via their faculty mentor while completing similar original research.Thus, graduate students can provide relevant mentorship and experience to undergraduates, andthey typically have fewer time restraints than faculty. Furthermore, Liang, Tracy, Taylor, andWilliams (2002) suggest that graduate student mentorship may offer greater benefits to theundergraduates, as they may be better positioned to empathizeengage with them morefrequently, and offer them a more authentic perspective, having been undergraduates recentlythemselves (Dolan & Johnson, 2009, p. 488). The experience of mentoring also has numerousbenefits for graduate students because it potentially increases both their identities as scientists andtheir retention in scientific research careers (Dolan & Johnson, 2009). Though these benefits exist,models of engaging graduate students as research mentors are not well covered in the literature(but see Horowitz & Christopher, 2013; Dooley, Mahon & Oshiro, 2004; Carsrud, 1984). Thework described here addresses a new model within the framework of a first-year STEM living-learning community.

    The LEARN ModelThe Learning Environment and Academic Research Network (LEARN) is a first-year living-learning community specifically designed to provide early research opportunities to undergraduatestudents. The target population of the program is first generation and/or underrepresented STEMstudents. Each year, 28 undergraduates are selected to live, take courses, complete a 12-weekresearch apprenticeship, and engage in community programming together. Research has validatedthe impact of living-learning communities, suggesting higher levels of academic integration whichresults in increased retention rates and GPAs (e.g., Stassen, 2003). However, LEARN significantlyincreases the individual student impact by providing an early research experience and multi-layermentorship in addition to the traditional living-learning components (i.e., shared classes, commoninterests).

    The students are prepared for the research experience through a one-credit Introduction toResearch I (fall semester) and Introduction to Research II (spring semester) courses. These coursesteach the students about basic research skills while exposing them to professional socializationand the culture of a research environment. As part of the course, they are paired with a graduatementor to complete 3 hours of research activity per week for 12 weeks. This researchapprenticeship runs October through March with a break in December while classes are not insession. While the time spent in the lab is brief compared to most undergraduate researchexperiences at our university, the apprenticeship provides a survey of discipline-specific researchand allows them to take part in essential activities that occur in the research environment. Theculmination of the experience ends in the production of a research proposal and poster on a topicrelated to the laboratorys research through the Introduction to Research II course.

    The LEARN model is unique because it (1) formally works with graduate mentors instead offaculty, and (2) has developed an introductory research apprenticeship paired with a course thatprovides professional training. The LEARN program welcomed its first cohort in 2011, supportedby a National Science Foundation grant.Recruitment and Training of Graduate MentorsEach year approximately twenty mentors are recruited and matched with LEARN students basedon discipline/major. LEARN participants are first-year students, and most do not have enoughexperience to make strong decisions regarding their interests. Thus, we find it more important to

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    select strong and interested mentors and match within research discipline. Graduate mentors arerecruited early in the fall semester and are offered a small scholarship to participate. To recruit,the program contacts graduate programs, individual faculty members and graduate studentorganizations. Interested graduate students then submit an application and their weekly schedule.After being selected, graduate students fill out a short program contract which includes asignature of support from their faculty mentor. The mentors are then matched with currentLEARN students and, where possible, pairs of students are assigned to one mentor. Conversationswith both the mentors and students have suggested a preference for the paired mentee model.

    In the first year of recruitment, a three hour training was created to orient the graduate mentors tothe LEARN program. The training was general and provided (1) the program structure and goals,(2) short review on mentoring and diversity, and (3) suggestions of activities the students could doin the lab. The outcome of this training was positive overall; however, the focus group reportgenerated from external evaluators suggested strengthening the graduate student mentoring (seeAssessment and Outcome section). It was clear that this was an area that could be improved, butthe original NSF grant did not include funding for the training of mentors. In an effort to supportthis weakness in the program, the coordinators applied for and received a small institutional grant

    aimed at information fluency and allocated those funds to an extended training session forgraduate mentors in year two.

    To strengthen the training, previous research on mentoring training programs was reviewed andon-campus experts in faculty development were consulted. Literature suggested that in general,mentorship training models have provided limited guidance on the content of mentoring (Liang etal., 2002). Instead, training has emphasized the structural and logistical components, such as howoften pairs need to meet, and matching mentor-mentee based on gender or ethnicity similarities(Liang et al., 2002). Thus, the updated LEARN Graduate Mentor Training aimed to bridge thisgap by providing a comprehensive five-hour training program that addressed both the mentoringcontent and structure of the mentoring experience.

    The areas of the training that were emphasized in the expanded training included: (1) informationfluency and critical thinking and (2) mentorship responsibilities and benefits (table 1). Thementorship training component focused on the importance of developing strong mentoringrelationships (Liang et al., 2002), and the focus group feedback from the LEARN participantsabout needing more structure (see table 2). Research has suggested that in order to producesuccessful mentoring relationships, there must be mutual benefits for both the mentor and mentees(Healy & Welchert, 1990). Furthermore, Dolan & Johnson (2009) indicated that communicatingthe benefits of mentoring may lead to increased involvement in mentoring undergraduates andincreased retention of these scientists-in-training (p. 496). Based on this, the mentor trainingemphasized the numerous benefits including: improved qualifications, research productivity,mentoring skills, confidence, communication skills, career clarification, and a more enjoyable

    work life (Dolan & Johnson, 2009). The training also includes the responsibilities of a mentor,guided by Mentoring Students and Young People: A Handbook of Effective Practiceby AndrewMiller.

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    Table 1: Schedule of LEARN graduate mentor training in 2012

    In addition to the five-hour training, external evaluators and program staff met with the graduatementors at the mid-apprenticeship point (January) to review the progress and success of thestudents. During the ninety minute working lunch, mentors share their experiences with eachother. These meetings are a refresher of the program goals and are used as a mid-pointassessment. If issues arise, program staff can then try to correct them. Both times these meetingshave been held the graduate mentors have shared that they were very useful.

    Assessment and OutcomesThe assessment of the graduate mentors was captured in focus groups of the LEARN participants,facilitated by external evaluators (both years) and a short pre-posttest that was developed for thetraining in year 2.

    Focus Groups (Year 1 and Year 2):Focus groups occur twice a year at the end of each semester. Table 2 summarizes the focus groupreports from year 1 and 2 related to the apprenticeship experience (Lancey & Bhati, 2012, 2013).All participants are required to attend, but they do not have to participate in the conversation ifthey do not feel comfortable sharing. The external evaluators do not interact with the students atany time except during the focus groups. The meetings last about one hour. These reports areextremely valuable and were used to advise improvements in the program. The 2011 focus groupobservations about the variation in experience related to the graduate mentor was the basis ofstrengthening the graduate mentor training in year 2 (Lancey & Bhati, 2012). While the graduatementor model was reported as positive in both years, the added structure provided through thegraduate mentor training seemed to make a difference in the student experiences for year 2

    (Lancey & Bhati, 2013). Fewer students commented on a lack of structure, and many studentssaid their mentors shared the research question or problem with them (Lancey & Bhati, 2013).

    Time Activity Description

    10:00am-11:00am LEARN Program Overview Introductions, LEARN overview, Lessons Learnedfrom previous mentors, mentor responsibilities, mentorexpectations

    11:00am-12:00pm Mentoring 101 Self-reflection of previous mentoring, why mentor, best

    practices in mentoring, expectations of mentees,mentoring in science, stages of mentoring, benefits ofmentoring

    12:00pm-1:00pm Diversity and Inclusion (witha working lunch)

    Review of communicating across cultures, respect,mentoring diverse students

    1:00pm-2:00pm Critical Thinking,Information Fluency, andOutcomes in Research

    Review definitions of critical thinking and informationfluency, brainstorm examples of activities in research thatcan provoke critical thinking and develop informationfluency skills

    2:00pm-3:00pm Planning for theApprenticeship and NextSteps

    Brainstorm research activities students can do, provide alist of previous activities students have completed andcompare, planning first semester worksheet, wrapping upand contacting your students

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    Table 2: Exerts from the formal anonymous focus group conducted in the fall 2011, spring 2012,fall 2012, spring 2013(Lancey & Bhati, 2012, 2013)

    Cohort 2011 Cohort 2012

    General Views -Most said they were comfortable in the researchenvironment, and found it interesting,challenging, and useful.

    - The quality of the apprenticeship experiencethat students reported was inextricably related tothe mentoring skills of the graduate students theywere assigned to

    - Almost all of the students described theirapprentices...

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