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Undergraduate students’ development of social, cultural, and human capital in a networked research experience

Abstract

Recent calls for reform in undergraduate biology education have emphasized integrating research experiences into the learning experiences of all undergraduates. Contemporary science research increasingly demands collaboration across disciplines and institutions to investigate complex research questions, providing new contexts and models for involving undergraduates in research. In this study, we examined the experiences of undergraduates participating in a multi-institution and interdisciplinary biology research network. Unlike the traditional apprenticeship model of research, in which a student participates in research under the guidance of a single faculty member, students participating in networked research have the opportunity to develop relationships with additional faculty and students working in other areas of the project, at their own and at other institutions. We examined how students in this network develop social ties and to what extent a networked research experience affords opportunities for students to develop social, cultural, and human capital. Most studies of undergraduate involvement in science research have focused on documenting student outcomes rather than elucidating how students gain access to research experiences or how elements of research participation lead to desired student outcomes. By taking a qualitative approach framed by capital theories, we have identified ways that undergraduates utilize and further develop various forms of capital important for success in science research. In our study of the first 16 months of a biology research network, we found that undergraduates drew upon a combination of human, cultural, and social capital to gain access to the network. Within their immediate research groups, students built multidimensional social ties with faculty, peers, and others, yielding social capital that can be drawn upon for information, resources, and support. They reported developing cultural capital in the form of learning to think and work like a scientist—a scientific habitus. They reported developing human capital in the forms of technical, analytical, and communication skills in scientific research. Most of the students had little, direct interaction with network members in other research groups and thus developed little cross-institutional capital. The exception to this trend was at one institution that housed three research groups. Because proximity facilitated shared activities, students across research groups at this institution developed cross-lab ties with faculty and peers through which they developed social, cultural, and human capital. An important long-term concern is whether the capital students have developed will help them access opportunities in science beyond the network. At this point, many undergraduates have had limited opportunities to actually draw on capital beyond the network. Nevertheless, a number of students demonstrated awareness that they had developed resources that they could use in other scientific contexts.

Resumen

Las llamadas recientes para reforma en la educación biológica de los estudiantes universitarios han destacado la integración de las experiencias de investigación en las experiencias educativas de todos los estudiantes universitarios (e.g., Brewer y Smith en Vision and change in undergraduate biology education: a call to action. American Association for the Advancement of Science, Washington, 2011). La investigación contemporánea científica exige la colaboración entre las disciplinas y las instituciones para investigar las preguntas complejas de investigación, proveyendo nuevos contextos y modelos para involucrar a los estudiantes universitarios en la investigación (Wei y Woodin en CBE Life Sci Educ 10(2):123–131, 2011). Examinamos en este estudio las experiencias de los estudiantes universitarios participando en una red multi-institucional e interdisciplinaria de investigación biológica. A diferencia del modelo tradicional de tipo aprendizaje, en el que un estudiante participa en la investigación bajo uno solo profesor, los estudiantes que participan en la investigación en red tienen oportunidades de desarrollar las relaciones con los profesores y estudiantes que trabajan en otras áreas del proyecto. Examinamos cómo los estudiantes de esta red desarrollan los lazos sociales y en qué medida una experiencia de investigación en red ofrece oportunidades para desarrollar el capital social, cultural y humano. La mayoría de los estudios sobre la participación del estudiante universitario en la investigación científica ha enfocado en la documentación de los resultados estudiantiles (Laursen et al. en Undergraduate research in the sciences: engaging students in real science. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, 2010) más que dilucidar cómo los estudiantes acceden a las experiencias de investigación o cómo su participación produce resultados estudiantiles deseados (Sadler, Burgin, McKinney y Ponjuan, en J Res Sci Teach 47:235–256, 2009). Al adoptar una estrategia cualitativa influida por las teorías del capital, hemos identificado las maneras en que los estudiantes universitarios utilizan y desarrollan el capital de importancia para éxito en la investigación científica. En nuestro estudio de los primeros dieciséis meses de una red de investigación biológica, encontramos que los estudiantes universitarios hacen uso de una combinación de capital social, cultural y humano para acceder a la red. Dentro de sus grupos de investigación inmediatos, los estudiantes construyeron lazos sociales multidimensionales con profesores, colegas y otras personas, rindiendo el capital social a que pueden recurrir para información, recursos y apoyo. También reportaron el desarrollo del capital cultural (e.g., aprender a pensar y trabajar como un científico) y el capital humano (e.g., habilidades técnicas, analíticas y comunicativas). La mayoría de los estudiantes tenían poca interacción directa con los miembros de otros grupos en la red y por lo tanto desarrollaron poco capital interinstitucional. La única excepción fue en la institución que contenía tres grupos de investigación. Porque la proximidad facilita las actividades compartidas, los estudiantes entre los grupos de investigación en esta institución desarrollaron lazos entre laboratorios con profesores y colegas a través de los cuales desarrollaron capital social, cultural y humano. Una importante preocupación a largo plazo es si el capital que han desarrollado los estudiantes les ayudará a acceder oportunidades en la ciencia más allá de la red. Hasta este momento, muchos estudiantes han tenido pocas oportunidades de hacer uso del capital más allá de la red. Sin embargo, un número de estudiantes demostró la conciencia de que habían desarrollado recursos que podrían utilizar en otros contextos científicos.

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Acknowledgments

Thanks to all of the members of the biology research network that was the focus of this study. Thanks also to the Biology Education Research Group at the University of Georgia for their thoughtful feedback. Support for this research was provided by a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF IOS-1052286). Its contents are solely the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official views of NSF.

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Correspondence to Jennifer Jo Thompson.

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Thompson, J.J., Conaway, E. & Dolan, E.L. Undergraduate students’ development of social, cultural, and human capital in a networked research experience. Cult Stud of Sci Educ 11, 959–990 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11422-014-9628-6

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s11422-014-9628-6

Keywords

  • Social capital
  • Cultural capital
  • Human capital
  • Science education
  • Undergraduate research