Learn by doing (on the importance of undergraduate research)

I was an opinion columnist for University of Maryland’s student newspaper The Diamondback for three semesters before I graduated. The columns I wrote are still up on the web archive, but I’d rather not depend on The Diamondback to host them indefinitely. Thus, I have decided to repost them on this blog, not only to archive them in a place under my control, but also so you readers here can have an idea of my writing in college. Here is my fifteenth published opinion column, Learn by doing, originally published March 2, 2007.

Many students seem to think of the university as a solely educational institution. It’s not. In fact, the majority of the work that goes on here is research-oriented. So it is a shame so few undergraduate students get involved in the university’s largest focus area. They’re missing a huge opportunity they may never get again if they aren’t going on to graduate school.

Undergraduate research is an excellent opportunity for students. Almost every department at the university offers undergraduate research programs, and most of them offer the guided or independent study variety through which you can earn class credits. You have to take 120 credits to graduate – why not get a measly three or six of them from doing something unique?

I’m working on a guided research project run by a professor in the astronomy department. It’s a three-credit class with a workload comparable to normal three-credit classes. But it’s so much more fun and exciting. I’m using satellite imagery taken by Mars Global Surveyor to determine Martian surface ages using isochrons calibrated against surface ages of the Earth’s moon. Basically, the more craters on a surface, the older it is. Of course, the details are a bit more complicated than that.

Conducting and working on research is a great opportunity, and it’s sad that relatively few undergraduates are availing themselves of it. How many people in this world get to perform primary analysis on data taken by a $100 million spacecraft millions of miles away? It has a certain “wow” factor that impresses graduate schools and prospective employers alike. You should get involved in research if only for selfish reasons: Real-world research experience looks very good on resum├ęs and gives your education more depth than just classroom learning. Research also advances the body of knowledge in the field, so even selfish motives yield altruistic results.

Opportunities like these are easily available in many departments. Are you a biology major? I count 10 different undergraduate for-credit research courses listed in the Testudo course catalog. Interested in geology or archeology? You can go on an actual dig expedition to exotic locales and potentially make the next revolutionary find in the field. Are you a psychology major? Want to help run a research study? Every major I can think of to look at offers excellent undergraduate research programs. Even if a department doesn’t have an existing class registration number for undergraduate research, it’s very likely to have professors who genuinely care about research and will go to great lengths to accommodate students who wish to participate.

So what are you waiting for? Rather than taking yet another four or five boring lecture classes next semester, why not broaden your horizons and complete a research project? Go on Testudo and look for research classes in your major. They have names like “Special Topics In …,” “Special Research Problems,” “Independent Study.” Talk with your department’s undergraduate adviser and ask about taking one of these classes. You can go on to graduate by just taking five normal classes a semester for four years, but I don’t recommend it.

College is about broadening your experiences, finding yourself and perhaps getting an education somewhere along the way. Anyone will tell you that if you just go to classes and never immerse yourself in any of the other aspects of the college experience, you’re not doing it correctly. You’re supposed to go out there and try new things, make new friends, make some mistakes, go out on a limb and just enjoy the experience. Research is a refreshing break from the doldrums of classes, and it gives you an excellent perspective on the academic world in which your professors are actually spending the majority of their time. Try it – you might like it.

I still whole-heartedly believe in this idea, and I wish I had been involved in more undergraduate research in school. Perhaps it’s my own fault for not searching out the opportunities that were there, but I can’t help but think that there could have been more done in the computer science department. Computer science research has low barriers to entry compared to other disciplines (no expensive lab equipment or test subjects needed), so I wish there would have been a semester-long class with a professor who kept tabs on all of the unsolved questions in computer science and assigned the doable ones to students. That would’ve rocked.

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