Collaborative Research Networks Provide Unique Opportunities for Faculty and Student Researchers

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Council on Undergraduate Research Quarterly

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We discuss the benefits that a collaborative research network, a group of faculty from different institutions who jointly conduct a research project, can have on undergraduate research (UR) by enhancing the diversity and significance of projects and by improving student motivation and breadth of learning. The main example used is the Ecological Research as Education Network (EREN), founded in 2010 to enhance undergraduate research in ecology at primarily undergraduate institutions (PUIs) by (1) providing networking and collaborative research opportunities for both faculty and students and (2) developing free educational resources. EREN comprises about 280 ecology faculty and staff nationally and has facilitated development of nine continental-scale, collaborative research projects. Project leaders design a research project that can be conducted by faculty and students at just about any college. Faculty and their students carry out the data collection at their home institution and submit it to the publicly available project database. Then participants (and even non-participants) can avail themselves of the large, multi-year, continent-wide data set. Substantial benefits have been reported for programs, faculty, and students. Undergraduate research programs are broadened and faculty benefit because they gain insights and laboratory techniques from colleagues in other institutions and fields, thereby expanding the diversity of potential undergraduate research projects and resulting in more broadly trained undergraduates. The research projects themselves have become educational resources incorporated into courses at all levels, as well as independent research projects. Because data collection happens nationwide, college faculty and students at small colleges are now able to investigate large-scale ecological questions. Preliminary assessments have shown significant improvements for some student-learning outcomes, including thinking across scales, use of best practices in data management, and describing scientific collaboration techniques. Students demonstrate increased motivation and retention through participation in a nationwide, authentic research project with publication-quality data, becoming part of a community of scholars and gaining a sense of belonging and responsibility. Despite challenges with coordination and communication, students are exposed to a wider range of techniques and subfields of ecology than they would be without this network.



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