Marisa Moazen, Assistant Vice Chancellor for Research Engagement and Director of Undergraduate Research, offers suggestions on mentoring undergraduate research virtually this summer
Summer 2020 brings a mix of experiences for our faculty who engage in undergraduate research mentoring. Only a limited number of faculty are able to mentor an even more limited number of students in person with social distancing protocols in place. For most of our faculty who choose to continue mentoring, they are having to do so remotely. This is a new experience for both the students and the mentors. We applaud all of our faculty and students who are willing to join us on this new adventure.
The Council of Undergraduate Research conducted a nationwide survey in March asking faculty what they thought were the most effective practices for virtual undergraduate research. We share a condensed version of the results combined with suggestions from our office.
- Set up a shared virtual workspace if you don’t have one yet.
UT offers Microsoft Teams at no additional charge. Encouraging students to share all work in the shared space ensures research notes are accessible to the faculty member after the project ends. UT also offers Microsoft Project at no additional cost. Students can be grouped into project teams within the larger team and tasks can be assigned and tracked. Any person on the project can enter a task and make assignments. Everyone on the project can see who has a task and if it has been completed. Other file options UT offers include OneDrive and Google Docs for the storage and transfer of documentation. If your research data is sensitive, check with OIT for the best platform for sharing and storing sensitive information.
- Meet with your students at least once a week.
This holds true for students who are conducting part-time research. If students are conducting full-time research, we suggest hosting a 30-minute daily check-in meeting via video conferencing. If not, strive for several times each week. Short daily conversations will eliminate the potential for larger issues later on. Consider recording the sessions for additional students who are not able to attend at the specified time. If you are hosting a project meeting each morning, ask the students to schedule their individual smaller team meetings each afternoon. That way they have two firm check-ins each day to keep them on task.
- Encourage the practice of keeping lab/research notebooks.
Even though you are not in the lab, it is still important for students to track their research progress. The practice of keeping a lab notebook is often a skill learned by watching more advanced undergraduates or graduate students on the project. It is vitally important in tracking research success, failures, and tweaks and can be used in all disciplines, not just the bench sciences. Faculty in the CUR survey overwhelmingly recommended Overleaf.com as their go-to tool for virtual lab notebooks. Have students read this article in Science about the importance of research notes: https://www.sciencemag.org/careers/2019/09/how-keep-lab-notebook#
- Consider replacing the social aspects that are devoid from the virtual experience.
One of the benefits of undergraduate research is the ability to build a support network for the students, both in and out of the research environment. Consider ways to bring students together outside of the research team meetings. Ask a senior undergraduate on the project or a graduate student to put together a virtual social hour so that students can connect on multiple levels. Invite guest speakers. This is a great opportunity to introduce students to other interesting hot topics via guest lectures. If you are uncomfortable with introducing the social aspect or would like some supplemental help, we have two suggestions:
- Consider purposely pairing students into teams of two to accomplish a project task, even if you have to create the task. This will allow individual connections. Also consider small teams of 3-4 people with the same format.
- The Office of Undergraduate Research hosts a Summer Research Scholars Program each summer that all faculty can access for their students to participate in research-focused events and activities. The program is open to individual students or entire project teams. Individual students will be assigned to a larger team for challenge activities. For Summer 2020, these activities will be moved online. There are weekly seminars, social activities, and virtual challenges between program participants. See the tentative schedule and have your students register at: https://ugresearch.utk.edu/students/find-opportunities/summer-research-scholars/
- Be generous with your praise and encouragement.
When we are conducting so much work through email, tone is lost. Be sure you communicate your satisfaction with their progress or your encouragement for better results. In a virtual environment, conversations need to happen more, not less. When you do connect through a web conference, share the success you have seen. Since you are not in the same space, students may communicate success only with you via email and the entire team may be unaware. Take time to recognize good work and the time to share constructive feedback with students who need encouragement to do better.
- Schedule a culminating experience for the students.
The end of the research project will come with mixed feelings. Ensure you schedule a final event for students to share what they have learned. Consider a final social event. Share with students what the next steps will be for the project. The Office of Undergraduate provides a final summer poster session for students across all programs to share their research with each other. All students registered in the Summer Research Scholars Program receive an invitation to participate.
Above all, thank you for your willingness to continue mentoring students! We appreciate you!
Contact: Marisa Moazen (firstname.lastname@example.org, 974-8560)