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A Regional Ecosystem That Helps Undergraduate Research Flourish


People stand and talk in front of a line of research posters set on easels.

Any graduate student or postdoc in the sciences can tell you that conducting and presenting original research require training and experience. Undergraduate research experiences give students a head start on this learning process, increasing their interest in science, encouraging them to remain in science majors, and building their confidence and ability to conduct research [Russell et al., 2007].

Sharing and explaining one’s research to fellow scientists, policymakers, or the general public can require just as much, if not more, effort and practice as conducting the research itself. However, undergraduates, regardless of their field of study, often have limited opportunities for this type of learning. While on-campus symposia where undergraduates present their research projects are becoming more common, fewer students take the next step to present at conferences or publish their work outside of their university due to various barriers. These barriers include the expenses associated with attending conferences and publishing, as well as the potential challenges of meeting the rigorous standards of professional journals, even if the research is valid.

A local network for undergraduate research can break down obstacles by offering affordable and accessible avenues for students to showcase their research outside of their school.

A local system for undergraduate research can aid in overcoming these obstacles by offering affordable and inclusive chances for students to showcase their research beyond their college. The non-profit organization, Florida Undergraduate Research Association (FURA), of which we have all served as current or former board members, has successfully established this system by providing transitional opportunities for undergraduates through a range of initiatives.

At the yearly Florida Undergraduate Research Conference (FURC), students in their first four years of college showcase research displays, connect with peers and recruiters from graduate schools, and participate in workshops to enhance their skills. Every alternate year, individuals from FURA member schools display their research to lawmakers at an event known as Posters at the Capitol in Tallahassee.

Aspiring scholars can submit their research manuscripts to FURA’s peer-reviewed Florida Undergraduate Research Journal (FURJ). FURA also hosts the yearly Florida Statewide Symposium: Best Practices in Undergraduate Research, which aims to equip university faculty and staff with the skills to effectively guide and assist undergraduate research endeavors.

These efforts collaborate effectively to enhance research opportunities for undergraduate students in Florida and to close the divide between presenting their findings in school publications and symposiums and presenting at larger conferences and in peer-reviewed journals. The framework described below can be duplicated and implemented in other locations to promote the professional growth of undergraduate students and benefit various fields, from STEM to the arts and humanities.

What Is FURA?

FURA is a non-profit organization recognized by the state of Florida and operated by a group of volunteer faculty and staff members from colleges and universities in the state. The board manages various aspects of FURA through committees, including the Membership Committee and the Events Committee, which support schools in hosting the annual research conference and statewide symposium.

FURA receives a majority of its funding from institutional memberships. Currently, 21 Florida colleges and universities, including both public research universities and private undergraduate institutions, pay a yearly fee of $300 for membership. This membership grants discounts for their students, faculty, and staff to attend FURC and the state symposium, as well as opportunities for involvement in events like Posters at the Capitol. Additionally, faculty and staff have the chance to serve on FURA committees, although only board members are eligible to chair them.

FURA strives to maintain affordable institutional membership fees in order to ensure that smaller schools and community colleges are not limited by financial barriers when joining.

FURA prioritizes inclusivity and strives to maintain affordable institutional membership fees. This allows smaller schools and community colleges, who may not have budgeted for membership, to join without financial barriers. For larger schools, the savings from reduced registration fees for their participating students can often cover the cost of membership.

The registration fees for attending the FURC 2023 conference or symposium, which are $60 for nonmembers and $55 for members, are consistently affordable and do not often go up. Additionally, FURA offers a small number of registration fee waivers for students who are unable to attend FURC due to their school’s financial limitations.

The meeting venues rotate throughout the state to avoid placing the burden of travel and expenses on the same schools every year. Additionally, conferences are restricted to a duration of 2 days, minimizing the need for a single night’s stay at a hotel.

FURA has taken steps towards promoting inclusivity, as seen through the changes made to the nomination process for their Mentor of the Year Award in 2022. In the past, students were required to write a two-page essay detailing their mentor’s influence on them. However, it was observed that this approach favored mentors of students who were skilled writers and attended larger universities. To address this issue, we have eliminated the essay requirement and replaced it with more targeted prompts, such as asking students to provide specific examples of how their mentor has impacted their personal and professional growth.

A Signature Experience for Student Researchers

Figure plotting the number of poster presentations at a conference from 2011 to 2023, with the hosting locations indicated below the horizontal axis

Figure 1 shows the increasing trend of poster presentations at FURC starting from its first year in 2011. The host institutions for each year are listed below.

FURC, the annual research conference organized by FURA, has been held since 2011 and is considered the flagship event of the organization. It takes place in late February and is hosted by a different school each year (see Figure 1). Interested schools must apply to host FURC two years in advance and are entirely responsible for planning, budgeting, and executing the conference, with assistance from the FURA Events Committee.

Students from all academic disciplines present posters at FURC, although the conference typically has robust representation from STEM fields (including the Earth and environmental sciences) and psychology programs. To participate, students submit an abstract in December, which may be accepted, sent back for revisions, or, in rare cases, rejected. The timings of abstract submission and of the conference itself are set to give mentors and mentees enough time to finalize a research project and to avoid conflicts with students’ winter and spring breaks and with on-campus research symposia.

92% of students who attended the Florida Undergraduate Research Conference reported feeling more confident in presenting their research posters, according to surveys conducted after the conference.

The two-day conference on weekends offers a chance for participants to connect and interact during a reception, followed by a keynote speaker on Friday evening. On Saturday, there will be poster sessions and workshops, organized by faculty or student clubs, which cover research-related topics like ethical conduct and career development areas such as creating a resume. Additionally, there will be a graduate school recruitment fair held throughout the conference.

Following the FURC event, surveys were conducted and revealed that 92% of student attendees felt an increased level of confidence in presenting their research posters. Additionally, over half of the students received beneficial feedback on their posters and gained a deeper understanding of their research topic during the conference. The majority of participants also expressed satisfaction with the conference’s structure and session lengths. Furthermore, the continuous growth in attendance since 2011, as shown in Figure 1, serves as evidence of the conference’s value to students.

Presenting for Policymakers

Every two years, Florida Undergraduate Research Posters at the Capitol brings together four students from each FURA member institution in Tallahassee. These students present their research to Florida lawmakers and the general public, while also gaining knowledge about the legislative process and how to support undergraduate research at a local and state level. This aligns with FURA’s mission of promoting and advocating for undergraduate research.

Once chosen, students, with the assistance of the FURA board and their respective institutions, reach out to their representatives to request their attendance at their presentations and set up one-on-one meetings. In the evening of the initial day, students gather for dinner to connect and gain further knowledge about advocacy efforts. The next day, they showcase their posters at the Florida Capitol before holding meetings with legislators and their staff. Additionally, they may have the opportunity to explore the Florida Historic Capitol Museum or take in the sights of Tallahassee from the observation deck on the 22nd floor of the Capitol building.

At the event, FURA sets up an information booth in the rotunda of the building to promote the importance of undergraduate research in the state and how FURA’s efforts contribute to this cause. Along with distributing a program for the event, FURA also provides a one-page document advocating for the benefits of undergraduate research in Florida, including the statistic that students who engage in such research have a higher likelihood of graduating.

A Path to Getting Published

Having accessibility is essential for undergraduates to be able to publish their research. However, students may not always have the opportunity to submit their work to professional journals outside of their own university. FURJ, which released its initial volume in 2022, offers students a platform for publishing that goes beyond their campus journal.

Cover of an issue of the Florida Undergraduate Research Journal with photos of undergraduate researchers below the journal logo and title

The Florida Undergraduate Research Journal accepts submissions from students enrolled in a 2- or 4-year college or university in Florida, whether public or private. Credit: Florida Undergraduate Research Association.

The journal is accessible to all and welcomes submissions from Florida students enrolled in either a 2-year or 4-year public or private institution of higher learning. These submissions undergo peer review based on disciplinary standards, and the feedback given to student authors is similar to what they would receive from disciplinary journals. FURJ has a three-tiered system in place for the review process, which aims to provide all students with consistent and professional feedback in various formats. These tiers include (1) initial comments from the executive editor, (2) additional comments from a student editorial board, and (3) a disciplinary review from an anonymous faculty member at a different institution than that of the student author(s).

Any student enrolled in a state institution is eligible to join the editorial board. The board members will work closely with the journal’s executive editor, promoting the journal at their own campuses and offering valuable feedback to authors to improve their manuscripts and make them more accessible to a wide range of readers. In addition, board members will develop their career readiness skills in areas such as career development, communication, critical thinking, equity and inclusion, leadership, professionalism, teamwork, and technology through their involvement in the board.

Exploring Effective Methods for Undergraduate Research

In 2008, the Florida Statewide Symposium was launched at the University of Central Florida (UCF) and continued there for a decade. It now moves to different locations in the state, with UCF hosting every other year. This symposium brings together faculty, administrators, and professional staff from various institutions in Florida to connect and exchange ideas on how to enhance and support undergraduate research opportunities.

The symposium held on weekends usually has 80-100 attendees. Similar to FURC, FURA sets low registration fees to only cover the expenses of planning the conference. The conference includes a variety of presentations, panels, and posters on various subjects such as university-wide programs (e.g. managing an undergraduate research journal), initiatives at the classroom level (e.g. incorporating research experiences into specific courses), and efforts to enhance research skills through assignments or modules within a course.

At the beginning, participants were pleased with the symposium. In the initial year, all attendees who completed evaluations “strongly agreed” that the symposium was beneficial. Evaluations have consistently acknowledged its significance for education and undergraduate research throughout the entire state.

The success of the symposium resulted in the establishment of FURC. The concept for this organization came about through conversations among mentors of undergraduate research during the initial years of the event. The symposium serves as the basis for FURA’s various initiatives, as it provides training for faculty and staff to assist their students in presenting research at FURC and Posters at the Capitol, as well as publishing in FURJ.

A framework for assisting students.

FURA’s main goal is to aid students through its various initiatives. Over 4,000 students have taken part in FURA events or had their work published in FURJ since the association was founded. While it’s challenging to quantify the exact impact of these programs, feedback from students and mentors provides valuable insight.

FURA has been helpful in easing the transition from undergraduate to graduate research for numerous students.

Taryn Lagor, a student at Lynn University, shared how her experience of publishing her undergraduate archaeology research in FURJ changed her perspective on criticism and peer review. She learned that taking criticism and revision suggestions should not be seen as harsh, but rather as opportunities for improvement. Taryn acknowledged that the patience and effort put into revising her work greatly enhanced her paper. Currently, she is pursuing a master’s degree in bioscience, focusing on how wildlife preserve features affect gopher tortoise populations. She has applied the knowledge and skills gained from the FURJ peer review process to her master’s thesis. FURA has also aided many other students in smoothly transitioning from undergraduate to graduate research.

The effective regional approach of FURA could easily be applied to other states and regions in the US, especially in areas with a large population of students in higher education institutions. It may also be possible to modify this approach for education systems in other locations. We are optimistic that this will benefit even more students who are seeking to advance their careers and gain valuable research experience. In Florida, FURA will continue to strive towards serving more students, enhancing current initiatives, and introducing innovative opportunities for undergraduate students.

References

Freundt, E. C., and K. R. Schneider (2019), Establishing a statewide celebration of undergraduate research: History and lessons learned, Scholarship Pract. Undergrad. Res., 2(3), 28–34, https://doi.org/10.18833/spur/2/3/3.

S. H. Russell, M. P. Hancock, and J. McCullough (2007) found that participating in undergraduate research experiences has numerous advantages. Their study, published in Science, reported that these experiences can be beneficial in various ways, as demonstrated by the 548-549 page range in volume 316 (issue 5824). The study can be accessed at https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1140384.

Author Information

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Reference: Lecher, A. L., M. Eichbauer, K. Schneider, and L. Young (2023), Creating a local ecosystem to support undergraduate research, Eos, 104, https://doi.org/10.1029/2023EO230395. Published on October 19, 2023.

Text © 2023. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

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