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Undergraduate Research in Australia

Undergraduate Research Scholarship Schemes

Summer Research Scholarships provide students with a fantastic insight into the research process and give them the opportunity to test whether research is for them. One undergraduate student involved in an eight week project researching the effects of giving oestrogen to male mice at the University of Sydney, said:

I realised through this project that research... it isn't about finding immediate solutions to the big questions, rather it's about doing your part answering the little questions then collaborating with everyone around the world, completing the puzzle so that the big questions can be answered (Matthew Lyle, Faculty of Medicine, University of Sydney

Incorporating research components into the undergraduate curriculum begins with policy and strategic initiatives brought about by willingness at senior levels. In 2007 Angela Brew completed a strategic project designed to develop research-enhanced learning and teaching right across the University of Sydney. This involved three aspects:

  1. integrating disciplinary research into teaching;
  2. developing research-based learning and
  3. developing the scholarship of teaching and learning.

View further information about the University of Sydney's project.

Angela Brew's role at Macquarie University is to develop undergraduate engagement by engaging students in research-based learning across the university. For further information view the Macquarie Projects page.

Edited extract from Brew, A. (2006). Research & Teaching: Beyond the divide. London: PalgraveMacmillan, pp. 90-91.

In undergraduate research scholarship schemes students undertake research for a defined period of time, typically in a summer vacation as part of a research team or alongside an established academic researcher. Most undergraduate research schemes appear to be targeted at the early years of undergraduate education; that is, in the first or second years. This is in contrast to the practice of engaging students in dissertation projects and capstone courses.

It is difficult to estimate how widespread the practice of engaging junior students in undergraduate research programs is. The Council for Undergraduate Research in America, for example, claims to have some 900 institutional members. Some universities have large programs. For example, approximately 80% of MIT undergraduates participate at least once during their time at university. The University of Arizona has 140 undergraduates participating in its biology research program alone. In the USA, funding for undergraduate research comes from the National Science Foundation as well as from numerous private foundations and bursary schemes. Harvard for example has 700 students in one bursary scheme alone. In short, undergraduate research is a well established aspect of university life in the USA. Numerous institutions have centres devoted to the organisation of undergraduate student research and many organise conferences and events and publish special journals to showcase students' work.

While the phenomenon of undergraduate students engaging in such real research projects in the junior years is commonplace in universities in the United States, elsewhere it tends to be relatively rare.

This leads to the question as to why it is not prevalent elsewhere. As far as I have been able to tell, in Australia, for example, the practice of engaging undergraduate students on real research projects in this way is not common, exceptions being the Summer Research Scholars scheme at the Australian National University and the Summer Vacation Research Scholarship program at the University of Sydney. It is clear that there is quite a bit of uncoordinated practice but it tends to be hidden.

In the UK too, there is no history or tradition of this practice as there is in the USA. This may be because there is not a tradition of students being in employment while at university 'working their way through college' in these countries. Yet the increased pressure on student finances does not appear to be an inducement to start such schemes. Engaging undergraduate students in research, particularly in the earlier years is more likely to be treated with suspicion.

A number of initiatives in many UK universities have been set up in the last few years following the Higher Education Funding Council for England funding initiative to encourage 'Research-informed teaching' and following changes in research council funding rules.

For further information see:

Developing Undergraduate Research and Inquiry by Mick Healey and Alan Jenkins. Higher education Academy, UK

Oxford Brookes University 'Undergraduate Research Student Scheme'

Council on Undergraduate Research: Learning through Research

See also our list of websites.

If you know of other examples than those mentioned here, please let us know by adding them to our database.

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