Research with undergraduates on an empty campus

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Summer is go-time for research, particularly in undergraduate institutions. But yet, when I walk across the desolate campus in summer, I inevitably get from the first person I see, “What are you doing here?” If classes aren’t in session, most folks campus can’t imagine why we’d stick around.

To be fair, it is true that I’m rarely on campus in summer. My primary field site is far away, I don’t keep live animals in the lab, and I don’t maintain a research group on campus in the summer. Plenty of my tenured non-science colleagues on 9-month contracts don’t do academic work off contract (and more power to them).

Some labs are busily chugging on campus throughout the summer. This is when substantial research happens, when undergraduates are available to work full-time, when we don’t have professional time divided so many directions. And we can say no to other forms of work, because we’re off contract. Summer is when I collect nearly all of the data and samples that I work with throughout the rest of the academic year. That’s the same for most of us, isn’t it?

(Of course summer is so hard for work because of K-12 vacation. Which is a whole other mess.)

I think one of the drawbacks about running a research lab on an empty campus in the summer is that it can give our undergraduates a misrepresentation of research culture in science. On one hand, it’s nice to be able to have your research lab as the only interesting thing around, and it can result in some tremendous group bonding. Working in the lab in the summer, with nothing else going on around campus, might be somewhat like working on a remote island. For better and for worse. But if we’re working to prepare our students for a career in research or other research-informed work, then this is a poor facsimile of that experience. This is definitely not a preview of what grad school life is like, or what it’s like to be working in a federal lab, or in industry, or a consulting firm, or as a professor, or pretty much anything else that our students might end up doing in and after grad school.

Working in a professor’s lab on an undergraduate campus in summer is a rather distinct thing of its own, and I suspect it’s not everybody’s cup of tea. It also might not be the best way to win to recruit people who are underrepresented in our fields.

This is, of course, the argument for REU programs at major research institutions. Because this provides a more immersive research environment for undergraduates than they can get at our institutions that go dormant in the summertime. Students get to experience a more “research-rich” environment. Which I suppose is shorthand for being around a greater number of people doing research on a greater variety of things. With more PhD students and postdocs around.

I’ve resolved this dilemma in the past by taking students to an incredibly richer and more immersive research environment, a field station filled with people from many different research institutions, where people eat 3 meals a day together and students get to meet, and become friends with, early career researchers from so many different universities. But as far as I know, this kind of cultural phenomenon doesn’t exist for lab folks, whose professional gatherings are limited mostly to conferences, workshops, and short courses, right? There really isn’t a chance for undergraduates to work alongside people from other institutions, except when visiting those institutions, and when they come to our campuses?

I realize that every campus has a different research culture and environment, and that summertime is inevitably different everywhere as well. Do you think that your students are getting the experience they deserve by being on your campus in the summer? How important is it to you that they go on REUs? How do we balance doing research with our students ourselves on our campuses while also making sure that they have good experiences with academic research off our campuses?

2 thoughts on “Research with undergraduates on an empty campus

  1. In my PUI, summer rental for students are not easy: lots of tourists come in and our dorms are closed for the summer.
    Thus, if I can’t pay the students during the summer, then forget about them sticking around for the summer. Most of our students are not from the local area. And yes, my campus and department is quiet during summer (nine months salary).
    So far, my few but highly engaged and motivated summer research students are enjoying the quiet campus. They also appreciate having access to all our equipment, all our labs, and all the time to think and perform their experiments with me being available at all time. They seem to get a lot of valuable knowledge (concepts, theory, techniques and methodology) from their summer experiences.
    Hopefully, at some point we can collaborate with R1 so they can also get a taste of an R1 environment but under my umbrella.
    So far, win-win situation for them, me and my department.

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