Undergraduate Research Experience Programs in Natural Resources, 2012-2016

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Virginia Tech


Undergraduate research education occurs in a variety of formats including co-curricular, summer internship, and course-based formats. Research on such programs historically focuses on undergraduate outcomes particularly in STEM disciplines. Situated learning theories such as cognitive apprenticeship and community of practice feature in exploratory research on how research is associated with participant learning. However, there is a lack of practical research on the role of undergraduate research experiences as situated learning and on the type and implementation of practices associated with undergraduate research program delivery, particularly in natural resources disciplines. Understanding the roles of such mechanisms in providing the broad range of benefits to undergraduate and mentor participants is an area of further exploration. This research describes undergraduate research experience programs, associated outcomes, and outcomes' relationships with situated learning elements. The first research chapter sampled program coordinators using researcher-led respondent driven sampling and describes the population of natural resources undergraduate research experience programs during 2012-2016 across 127 such programs. Two-step cluster analysis using program characteristics identified seven variables that distinguish between seven program types. Variables included pay amount, academic preparation activities, graduate student mentorship, highest student classification allowed, affirmative action statement presence, undergraduate cohort siting, and summer duration. Program types were underclass intensive traditional, extended graduate student mentored, professional development, distributed intensive, site-based traditional, shorter duration intensive, and larger long-term types. The next research chapter explores how undergraduate participants in a subset of natural resources research experiences viewed their programs as situated learning and outcomes attributed to their experience. Exploratory factor analysis identified six situated learning domains associated with the practice of undergraduate research in natural resources disciplines: effective mentorship methods, project and task sequencing, mutual engagement, broad repertoire, specific repertoire, and joint enterprise. Outcome factors indicated moderate to strong gains in the following areas: general skills, career trajectory, academic and career readiness, communication of science, cognitive skills, and researcher identity development. Effective mentorship methods, sequencing, broad repertoire, and specific repertoire were significant predictors of increased gains across all outcome factors. The final chapter is a mixed-methods case study evaluation of a postgraduate mentored research experience program titled PINEMAP Fellowship. Participant outcomes associated with the fellowship lend support to prior literature on how participants, particularly a set of demographic groups, benefit from participation. Findings offer empirically-based considerations for program developers and coordinators in promoting and adapting programs to undergraduates' needs and goals as well as provide suggestions for further analysis of causal relationships. Additional research is needed to explain how and to what degree undergraduate experiences in natural resources and other disciplines provide positive outcomes for a diversity of participants.



undergraduate research, situated learning, community of practice, resource communication, program evaluation