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NMSU Undergraduate Research

To better understand the NMSU culture surrounding undergraduate research experiences (including work with faculty on original scholarship and creative work), Dr. Phame Camerena, Director of Undergraduate Research Initiatives and Dean of the William Conroy Honors College, reviewed the current state of undergraduate research during Fall 2020 to provide recommendations. 

As a research university with a deep commitment to undergraduate education, New Mexico State University has a long and rich tradition of its faculty engaging undergraduate students with their original research, scholarship, and creative work. Consistent with the literature on undergraduate research more generally, the faculty understand that mentoring original student work in their labs, in the field, or in the studio, is a high impact learning practice with significant impacts on academic achievement and student development (Kuh, 2008).
An environmental scan using both an online review of campus resources and a series of informal interview with "informants". Expert informants were first recommended by each College Deans starting a snowball of referrals to others in the campus community with significant experience working to promote undergraduate research either in their individual work or as administrators of programs and grants. The findings from this work provide a partial snapshot of the NMSU undergraduate research community and reveals a strong foundation from which to build NMSU’s excellence in this area of work.

NMSU Faculty have had exceptional success in securing and running externally funded projects designed to promote research experiences for undergraduate students. Many of these are funded by agencies with priorities on under-represented populations and STEM fields. Faculty have also successfully secured funding to support undergraduate research programs in the social sciences. 

Multiple academic units have developed structures to encourage undergraduate research and original scholarly work. For example: 

  • Discovery Scholars Program (Arts & Sciences) 
  • Honors College promotes an undergraduate Thesis sequence for completion of the University Honors Protocol
  • Annual Undergraduate Research and Creative Arts Symposium (URCAS)
  • Academic programs have curricular pathways with original research or similar capstone work supervised by a faculty advisor
  • Faculty members actively supervising undergraduate students in their professional work outside the classroom

Certainly, each of these programmatic efforts (and others not listed) are successful and can document positive outcomes in the students that participate.  The challenge, however, remains that externally funded programs are constrained in the number of students they can serve and are limited by the availability of funds.  Similarly, internally funded programs can be successful but relatively few students are aware of these opportunities, do not see the value of these experiences, or do not understand how these can be built into their current academic programs.

Finally, although there are multiple independent efforts to promote undergraduate research scattered across campus, there is not one centrally identified campus office or unit with explicit leadership responsibility.  NMSU is, in fact, the only one of its identified peer institutions not to have some form of a permanent Office of Undergraduate Research to promote and coordinate these efforts! 

  • Drawing from the comments of interview informants, a consistent picture emerges of a campus with a strong potential to enhance practices that promote undergraduate research experiences.
  • NMSU has a strong history of securing externally funded programs to support student engagement with research but have not always been able to transition efforts into sustainable programs after funding is complete. 
    • Faculty leading these efforts provide significant experience from recruitment to post graduate tracking of student outcomes
    • The importance of paying students for longer term work or summer appointments remains a healthy debate.
  • There is a consensus that NMSU is well positioned to support undergraduate research if it becomes a priority. There is a strong core of faculty members who already believe in the value of this experience as a transformative, high impact, learning method but:
    • Do not see adequate recognition or encouragement beyond the push to secure externally funded grants
    • Report that once peers begin to include undergraduates in their work, the positive experience leads to continued commitment 
    • Students are willing and eager if they have been introduced to opportunity but it is not always easy to make them aware of the value or possibilities
  • Promotion and tenure procedures can already account for this work, but it has not typically been acknowledged or explicitly encouraged. Undergraduate research blends NMSU LEADS 2025 priorities for student success and growth of NMSU's profile as a national research university raising the value of this initiative: 
    • Movie toward R1 is not abandoning NMSU's focus on undergraduate teaching and learning; Undergraduate engagement in research, scholarship, and creative work reinforces that value.
  • Most majors have capacity for built-in research experience and some have successfully structured explicit sequences that introduce, reinforce, and engage students as part of the curriculum.
  • There is a perception that academic advising does not adequately promote this kind of work with faculty to students in scheduling and program planning.

Consistent with these themes, faculty and administrators agree that, even in the face of competing demands and priorities that demand attention, NMSU can take immediate, low cost, moves to raise the profile of undergraduate research for both faculty and students.

  • Clear messaging from senior leadership that undergraduate research is valued and will be rewarded can lead to changes that will encourage both faculty and students to increase participation.
  • Designating a central coordinating office for advocacy, coordination, and resources will help all but would be especially useful to faculty with less previous experience in this area.
  • Identifying a Community of Scholars or a task force of seasoned professionals would help establish a cadre of faculty leaders, guide additional implementation, and help document and disseminate best practices on the NMSU campus.
  • Sharing models of course sequence that already promote undergraduate research within the standard curriculum will encourage others to examine how their curricular structures can:
    • Introduce the value and opportunities in first year coursework
    • Create exposure and hands-on exploration with methods and mid-level courses
    • Provide guided opportunity for capstone research experiences
  • Build off of existing programs and structures that cross departmental and disciplinary boundaries (e.g., Discovery Scholars in A&E; Thesis/Capstone sequence in Honors College)
  • Provide guidance on how to propose and document allocation of effort for promotion and tenure processes with explicit encouragement for Department Heads to encourage these efforts
  • Build Digital Measures procedures to better reward activities and document campus trends
    • # of student coauthors on presentations/exhibitions/publications
    • Supervision of original senior capstones and Honors Thesis
  • Initiate a NMSU undergraduate journal or periodical to feature original undergraduate research, scholarship, and creative work
    • In addition to reinforcing the value of shared original work, this could also be used for outreach, marketing, and recruitment
  • Promote undergraduate participation in RCW and URCAS while raising the profile of these activities as highly valued on campus
    • Encourage introductory courses to have students attend and review work to introduce students early and expose them to successful models of other students (e.g., FYI, methods courses)
  • Add preferred criteria for new faculty recruitment so that a “program of work that engages undergraduate students” alerts all to the value of this work
  • Develop a posting structure for faculty to more easily recruit students and raise student awareness of opportunities (including collaboration with programs and offices to ensure equity and inclusion)
  • Develop campus funding opportunities to support students for summer work and/or structure Crimson Scholar funding so that undergraduate research opportunities are prioritized.

With the formation of a designated office and the establishment of a community of scholars or task force of committed faculty, the specific strategies, order of activities, and measurable targets and outcomes could be more thoughtfully refined. Even with competing demands on time and financial resources, this review confirms that promoting undergraduate research is a worthwhile initiative for NMSU  and a manageable task with meaningful outcomes for the university as a whole!