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A Beautiful Concept

Norma McGavern-Norland

An Idea and its Underlying Principles

Margaret MacVicar (MIT's first dean for Undergraduate Education and a graduate student when she invented UROP in 1969) had a nifty idea some years ago. This was the idea that she developed into UROP (the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, if there is still someone who doesn’t know the acronym) 30 years ago next fall. The name has been borrowed, sometimes along with much of the program itself, by other colleges and universities around the country and even around the world.

Most schools have taken MIT’s UROP idea in the right spirit and adapted it to their own needs. Sometimes the name is inventive – there is URECA (eureka!) at SUNY Stony Brook, for example, although "UROP" is becoming virtually generic. The University of Delaware has a URO program and the University of Minnesota and the University of Utah have programs called UROP. At the National University of Singapore there is an Undergraduate Research Opportunity Programme, as there is at London’s Imperial College where the "O" is a plural. Nearby, at Boston University, there is "UROP/FROP," the UROP for matriculating students, the FROP for engineering pre-freshmen.

It is hard to imagine that MIT’s program was once the only one of its kind. The concept was so simple: make use of what you have a lot of (research in our case) and establish that as the basis for bringing together students and faculty. The self-interest of both parties keeps it afloat – students’ desires for hands-on experience and being connected with faculty, the faculty’s desire to advance their research and be connected with students in a less formal setting than the classroom.

It may seem hard to recall now, but before UROP existed in the 1960s there was far less social interaction between most students and most faculty than there is now. Exceptional or aggressive students could always find faculty to do research with – they always have and always will. The concept of students working with faculty was hardly new. So it is not surprising that the most cutting criticism of UROP in those years was the challenge, what was novel about it? What was the big deal? My answer to both questions is that scale matters.

It is not difficult to set up a limited research program, or a one-time research group, or offer research opportunities in a single department or area where it is expected to provide the necessary hands-on component of classwork. These are the kinds of research programs many other colleges have today. They are often small, or limited to certain students, or to a particular discipline, frequently engineering. It is a different thing entirely if the program is for everyone, whether they be freshmen or seniors, or have high or middling GPA’s and, most notably, if the opportunities exist in all disciplines, not excluding the humanities. The very best programs are often "no big deal;" they fit a given situation so naturally they are unobtrusive. Sometimes people assume they were always there.

When UROP was a new idea, skepticism about newness wasn’t the only concern. Some faculty had doubts, and thought having students as collaborators was a big deal. The reason was that they thought undergraduates would be costly. Never mind whether they got paid or not: they would use up supplies, and they would undoubtedly break things. In the early 1970s, UROP used to grant small amounts of money for "materials and supplies" to relieve those concerns and allow supervisors to at least come out even. By 1973, most of this materials funding was dropped as faculty began to realize students’ contributions were real and were far outweighing any breakage.

UROP may have been a simple idea, but simple ideas don’t necessarily sell themselves. In an old file, I recently came across a collection of labels that were to be section headings for a history of UROP Margaret MacVicar never got to write. They read: "Strategic Aspects," "Non-Adversarial Stance," "Non-Invasive Packaging," "The Department as the Basic MIT Unit," "Faculty Must Feel in Control," and "The Role of Selfish Motives." It is not too difficult to see what she was getting at. She knew that if the program was going to work and be a positive addition, it had to be a perfect fit with how faculty and students actually work and live. Behind UROP’s simple goals were some important principles, the same principles that govern UROP today:

Institutional fit. Research is MIT’s prime "currency," and what most students who come here are interested in. Since faculty do serious research, students should be expected to do the same, working as collaborators with faculty, doing "the real thing." Since faculty research does not fit neatly into semester blocks and often has its own pace, UROP research should have the same flexibility, with different credit or pay rewards, and varying research beginning and ending times. As departments are the essential MIT unit, departments set the standards for credit-worthy research. In general, students do all that faculty do, and that includes writing proposals, making presentations, and so on.

Program flexibility. Research in one department or area may take a different form than research in another. Standards for a UROP project have to accommodate the arts as well as chemistry. When an idea fails to conform to a common format but nevertheless has academic merit, faculty enthusiasm, and is "done in the right spirit," UROP will offer support. There is also no absolute standard for financial support. Departments have varying needs for financial support for UROPers over time. Hence, much is negotiable. "The right spirit" is undefined, but we know it when we see it.

Mutual benefit. One only has to look at what happened in 1994 to see there is motivation to do UROP even when it is heavy going financially. Faculty continued to pay UROP students despite the fact that in mid-summer 1994 those students suddenly cost 65% more because of a new federal indirect cost agreement that went into effect July 1st. After an immediate participation drop in fall 1994 (due to shock, financial readjustments?) the number of UROPs done for pay resumed the upward curve that began in 1973 and has continued ever since.

Freedom of choice. As beneficial as UROP can be to both parties, faculty have always been free to accept or reject becoming a UROP supervisor (or accept or reject a particular student for that matter) and students are free to either do UROP or not. Overall, people have seemed happy to have this choice. The type of reward (pay, credit) is also an option in most cases, although people frequently have preferences in one direction or another.

Academic soundness and quality. Faculty are responsible for ensuring the academic soundness of a project. Without insisting on academic standards (i.e., all work must be credit worthy, whether done for pay, credit, or on a voluntary basis) UROP might be only an interesting co-curricular. While departments are responsible for academic oversight, UROP has the overall concern of catching up with problems such as feedback about an unworthy project, poor supervision, student absenteeism, copyright issues, etc. Each of these problems occurs from time to time and is generally solved by the parties concerned, most often with UROP’s assistance.

Educational Values, Principles, and UROP

While this article was being prepared, a sophomore wrote to UROP about her project: "It felt incredible to actually act as an equal to a professor! He spent years and years studying knot theory, and here I was, understanding his abstract paper and writing to him as an equal! This project has been the most exciting academic experience I've had so far."

The same week, a faculty member wrote to UROP: "Joe [a pseudonym] is the greatest thing to happen to me since I've been at MIT. My first surprise came when my colleagues started saying in faculty meetings, ‘Who does Joe work for? Wow, are you lucky!’ And, indeed, sometimes I think Joe ought to have my job. . . My grad students are in awe of Joe, and that's the way it should be. Let them shake a bit and learn from him."

With comments like these (and they are not rare, I hasten to add) it is easy to understand the wish to cultivate this kind of enthusiasm about more elements of undergraduate education. It is because of UROP that MIT has achieved some of the broader goals of both the MIT Task Force on Student Life and Learning and the nationally-focused Boyer Commission Report.

The Boyer Commission Report on Undergraduate Education in Research Universities, funded by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and made public in spring 1998, set off a round of self-examination in many research universities. The report begins with an idealistic framing of the issues. The introduction quotes President Vest pointing out that "government funding of research in the universities is also an investment in the education of the next generation, with every dollar doing double duty, a ‘beautiful and efficient concept.’" The report adds: "The university’s investment in research faculty also does double duty with teaching ideally enhanced by the research experience of both faculty and students."

That UROP does "double duty" is evident in the fact that the Boyer Report cites UROP as an example of a "sign of change" ["Ten Ways to Change Undergraduate Education," p. 1, Reinventing Undergraduate Education: A Blueprint for America's Research Universities, April 18, 1998.] (remarkable, given that it is nearly 30 years old) in how research universities can educate and integrate their research and teaching. The report goes on to outline how a university might be a "synergistic system" by making research-based learning the standard, constructing an inquiry-based freshman year, removing barriers to interdisciplinary education, linking communication skills and course work, culminating with a capstone experience, educating graduate students as apprentice teachers, using information technology creatively, changing the faculty reward systems, and cultivating a sense of community. At MIT, UROP has long had an effect in many of these areas.

Many UROP collaborations are interdisciplinary and many UROP projects are literally done in MIT’s interdisciplinary laboratories and centers; graduate students are frequently the daily supervisors of UROP students; more UROPers know faculty well than non-UROPers and thus may be said to have stronger ties to the MIT community; and, UROPers are called on to make formal presentations and write research papers more frequently than those who haven’t participated. Much of this has been confirmed by survey data and was mentioned in previous Faculty Newsletter articles. Data from the most recent survey of seniors in the Class of 1998 told us that 21% of seniors who had been UROPers (82% of seniors were participants) were co-authors or single authors on published papers; 20% had made presentations to professional societies.

MIT’s Task Force on Student Life and Learning outlined eleven principles in its final report to the MIT community [published in September 1998]. Underlying these is the larger goal of bringing together faculty and students through the triad of academics, research, and community. Of the 11 principles, more than half are in some way related to undergraduate research. The report’s recommendations are specific about enhancement and expansion of undergraduate research. In a section that discusses the first year, the report mentions that more students should be exposed to research early in their careers, since "many students do not have real research experiences until late in their undergraduate studies, if then." The first recommendation states that MIT should "expand UROP. . .and set a goal of involving 100 percent of undergraduates in research experiences sometime during their four years on campus." To accomplish that, UROP should receive "adequate resources from the Institute in terms of funding, staff support, space, and coordination." Faculty participation as UROP supervisors or teachers of research subjects should be recognized formally, the report suggests, and considered in tenure and promotion decisions.

UROP and Recommended Educational Goals

UROP and freshmen. It is true that freshmen come to MIT eager to participate in research. Their interest and enthusiasm are evident in the "All About UROP" meetings UROP holds for incoming students. In the first semester, however, the demands of the core requirements and other coursework generally make participating difficult, if not impossible, for most freshmen. Students are still uncertain at this point about how much time they have to commit to research. It is not until the middle or end of the first semester that freshmen generally gain a sense of how much time they can actually consider "free time." About 52 freshmen did UROP in the fall semester 1997, comprising 6% of all fall UROPers. (In fall 1998 the number was almost identical.) By the spring semester the percentage of freshmen rose to 18%. By summer the percentage would rise to nearly one-third of UROPers. The pie chart illustrates the distribution of participation by class year in spring 1998.

Another condition that inhibits freshman participation is lack of experience. UROP helps freshmen fill this gap through the IAP UROP Mentor Program that has been running since 1993. After several weeks of learning what research is about, with the experienced UROPer serving as instructor, the majority of pre-UROP participants are usually offered formal UROPs by their mentor’s faculty supervisor. It is clear that faculty value freshmen who obviously have more than a nodding acquaintance with their research and have already gained some understanding of laboratory equipment and procedures. A nice side-effect of the Mentor Program is the challenge and excitement many of the UROP student mentors feel as a result of this teaching experience, the first such experience for most. The latest (1999) Mentor Program got off to a rousing start with participation of upper-class student mentors and pre-UROPers as much as 150% higher than last year, and with higher enthusiasm to match.

The research seminar experience. Although the Task Force suggested Advisor Research seminars for freshmen that are offered to the entire freshman class, this need not be the only way of connecting beginners with the range of research. We have long noticed that every year there are faculty who offer Advisor Seminars with subject matter related to issues in their research. Students who show real interest often follow it up in the spring by joining the faculty’s ongoing research. Any seminar where the faculty member is also the students’ advisor is time-consuming for faculty. We asked faculty in our UROP survey in December 1998 what kinds of experience, if any, they would ideally like students to have before they take them on as UROPers.

According to early and still incomplete data, faculty who had UROPers regularly (i.e., virtually each semester and summer) were almost unanimous in responding "course taken in the appropriate subject area." The next most frequently checked were "relevant laboratory/work experience" and "a seminar about your research or related research area." This kind of experience or information could easily be imparted in an IAP seminar or regular undergraduate seminar held during the semester without necessarily including the function of advising.

Is UROP for everyone? Responses to UROP questions in the 1998 Senior Survey told us that while over 82% of seniors had participated in at least one UROP, 5% said they never had time for UROP and another 5% said they had never been interested in doing UROP. It may be worth noting, too, that one consequence of involvement in UROP for 22% was learning that "research is not for me," no doubt an important conclusion to those students.

Students are not the only ones who sometimes choose not to do UROP. We sent faculty a survey about UROP in December 1998. Although the data is incomplete at the time of this writing, a look at a subset of responses indicates that while only a small number said they had never participated in UROP, they cited the fact that work in their area was unsuitable for undergraduate researchers or was unlikely to interest undergraduates. Although 68% of this subset are regular supervisors (virtually every semester and summer) or frequent supervisors (at least once during a calendar year) there are also many who choose to take on UROPers only occasionally or infrequently. UROP staff have long noticed that individual faculty have periods of heavy involvement and other periods of light to no involvement as supervisors. Having a choice about participating is important to both faculty and students.

UROP Next Year and After

UROP has been so agreeable and fulfilling to both faculty and students that it has become a model, as the Task Force recommendations illustrate, not just to other colleges, but to the building or improvement of other elements of undergraduate education. In many ways, this makes sense: build on what works. It is also important when making changes or building on UROP’s success that we keep intact those principles that make it work as well as it does, and that make people happy about how it works. Remove choice, for example, and you have changed an important underlying principle.

Because it is not only the millennial year but UROP’s 30th anniversary year, academic year 1999-2000 will be a milestone for UROP. It will mark another year, I am sure, of endowment building which began in earnest only about five years ago, but has moved us well along toward the half-way point of a $10 million goal. Enhancements and special editions are planned for our Website and printed Directory.

The writer, director of UROP since Margaret MacVicar’s death in 1991, will retire in July 1999. Some of the details of how UROP will be administered after July are still in the process of being worked out, but it is clear that our most important goal will continue to be having a close connection with faculty, with departments, and with those who have responsibility for the undergraduate program.

It will continue to be important for UROP staff to be aware of educational issues and initiatives so that UROP can respond appropriately. The UROP office is fortunate in having staff members Michael Bergren, chief UROP administrator, and Melissa Martin, administrative assistant, who are deeply committed to UROP and know its history and every bit of its operations. One way to ensure this may be via a voluntary advisory committee of faculty who have been long-time UROP supervisors. Another way will be to have leadership that helps UROP keep its reputation intact and make new and better ties to the MIT community.

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