In the 2014-2015 school year, I had the good fortune of serving as a co-team leader of a Bass Connections team. Bass Connections seeks to engage undergraduate students in interdisciplinary research, under the mentorship of Duke faculty. When I signed up to lead this team, I had no idea that it would be one of the most rewarding teaching experiences of my time at Duke.
Our Bass team included six students and two faculty members. The questions we sought to answer were: What influences people’s attitudes toward “shotgun marriage”? And, do people have different attitudes during economic downturns? We chose to answer these questions with a vignette study, which presents people with a description of a hypothetical unmarried couple with an unplanned pregnancy. We randomly varied information about the couple, including a description of the local economic context and then asked people: Should this couple get married before the baby is born? Will they get married? Why?
Our team had great success answering these questions because of three key innovations in engaging with students: ownership; structure; and expectations.
Ownership: From the beginning, we emphasized with our students that we were all co-creators of the project. A typical undergraduate research experience will bring student in to work on an existing faculty research project. In this case, although the substance of the research project built on the faculty members’ prior research, the research design and implementation were entirely new and relied on student input and participation as full partners. Among the students, roles were not hierarchical and we stressed that each students’ efforts would benefit the whole team.
Structure: Our team had a regular, weekly meeting time. The weekly meeting time was not used to complete tasks. Rather, we assigned the students specific tasks to be completed and shared in advance of each meeting, so that we could use our face-to-face time together to talk through challenges, troubleshoot, and make collective decisions.
Expectations: From the beginning we stressed that all team members would be doing primary data collection in the community and would need to interact with people they did not know. We also made clear to the students that what we were doing together was real-world research, and not a canned class exercise, in which the professors know the answers and are helping the students figure them out. On the contrary – we had no idea what we would find in advance.
These innovations led to the completion of an impressive primary data collection effort. Collectively, the students recruited nearly 500 participants (with nearly 1,000 data points) with diverse characteristics. To do so, the students had to spend time recruiting in a wide range of community settings, including the bus station, the playground at the mall, outside grocery stores, and at barbershops.
More importantly, this project has generated very interesting substantive findings: Respondents were significantly less likely to indicate they think the couple will get married when the community has recently experienced job losses. I will never forget the day when our team sat together in the computer lab to run the statistical analyses and we saw this result. After seeing the statistically significant finding, the whole team spontaneously started cheering!
This innovation research experience for undergraduate was a win-win for both faculty and students. Most notably, the project has led to a completed manuscript, which we have submitted for publication in an academic journal, with all of the student team members as well-deserving co-authors. For faculty, the project has facilitated the advancement of our own research agendas, enabled us to pursue a project we could not have completed otherwise, and enabled us to mentor the next generation of researchers. For students, the project led to exposure to real-world research, experience working as part of a team, and increased motivation to pursue research as a potential career. I am thrilled to have been a leader of this team!