Au Sable Makes Initial Assessment of Undergraduate Research Program

 Two Au Sable undergraduate research students collect samples in the Boardman River.

Two Au Sable undergraduate research students collect samples in the Boardman River.

When a program is new, there isn’t much history, and not much to assess in terms of its effectiveness. But as time passes, programs are like people. They build a record. It was not many years ago that the Au Sable Undergraduate Research Program was a fledgling effort with little history to evaluate. But that is changing. Dr. Fred Van Dyke, Au Sable’s Executive Director, has begun the first initial assessment of the program, examining the success of students who were research assistants in the program from 2011 through 2018 and determining the effect of their research experience on gaining opportunities in graduate education and employment.

Thirty-eight students have been identified with reliable contact information who participated in the Au Sable Undergraduate Research Program (AURP) during those 8 years. So far, 26 (68%) have responded to initial inquiries. Of these, 5 are still undergraduate students. Among the other 21, 16 (76%) are currently accepted into or have completed graduate programs in biology (mainly in environmental and conservation emphases), including two who have completed graduate education and are now employed full time in conservation biology. Three of the five who did not go to grad school are employed full time in environmental conservation or education. A fourth has been employed previously, and is now moving to another part of the country to resume employment in environmental study (in this case, aquatic science and conservation). The fifth person is currently enrolled in law school. Counting the individual moving to a new state to resume employment in the conservation field, this means that 20 of 21 (95%) post-graduate respondents are pursuing higher education or working in conservation.

I’ve never hear of any undergraduate research program getting outcomes this good.

“I knew we had been running a good and improving undergraduate research program here,” said Van Dyke, “but even I was surprised at these results. With over two-thirds of participants responding so far, we have nearly 100% of these accepted into grad school or employed in the field. I’ve never hear of any undergraduate research program getting outcomes this good. “

In addition to responding to questions requiring close-ended answers, respondents were provided with the opportunity to comment on whether their Au Sable experience affected their admission to grad school or to gaining employment. Responses in these categories were almost entirely positive. One respondent, whose reply was typical of the respondent group, said the following:

My Au Sable experience was certainly crucial to my acceptance into grad school.

“My Au Sable experience was certainly crucial to my acceptance into grad school. I learned many valuable things including how to efficiently review literature, conduct various forms of habitat sampling and species collection, perform multiple types of statistical analyses, network with different types of research professionals and organizations, present research at a professional level, and write manuscripts that fulfill publication requirements. My advisor found my experiences impressive and thought that I would be a good fit for his lab.”

Another respondent who went directly into the work force, bypassing graduate school, stated:

I became a Project Scientist and lead all aquatic surveys and laboratory for the entire company. This is only one of the many positions I have acquired because of the Au Sable experience on my resume.

“As a result of my macroinvertebrate research, I edged out several other candidates for jobs. I found out about a job opening at a private environmental consulting firm and sent them my resume. I was interviewed the next day, and offered the position the day after I interviewed. After I accepted the job, I was told that the day I sent them my resume, they were planning to call another candidate and offer them the position. But, when they saw my macroinvertebrate research experience, they chose me. I became a Project Scientist and lead all aquatic surveys and laboratory for the entire company. This is only one of the many positions I have acquired because of the Au Sable experience on my resume.”

Dr. Brian Keas, Au Sable’s Director of Educational Development, who has made strong contributions to the program since his arrival on Au Sable’s staff in 2016, noted, “In addition to the technical skills and methods learned by the research assistants at Au Sable, they also become part of the supportive Au Sable community which includes Christian faculty at major research universities. Their time at Au Sable provides the researchers with both an understanding of the expectations for graduate and professional work and, more importantly, the knowledge and confidence to pursue their goals.”

“These early returns are very encouraging,” said Dr. Van Dyke, “but we still have a long way to go. As we have moved to a program fully supported by external grants and other funding, we’ve been able to offer research stipends competitive with NSF and other national programs, and that has helped us attract top students. And we also attract people who want to be part of a compelling purpose. Au Sable’s mission is to inspire and educate people to serve, protect, and restore God’s earth. All of our research is about that, too. Now we are moving into the next phase – the publication of our results in national and international peer-reviewed journals. That’s the next step in assessment – to find out how the professional and scientific community views our research itself. That’s always a difficult step, but we have the data and manuscripts now that I believe will succeed in the peer review process, and out of that effort we are going to make this program even better.”

We are proud to support the strong environmental science programs at our participating Christian colleges by offering these research opportunities to their students and are pleased at the successful outcomes. The Au Sable Institute looks forward to even better reports of success among the new students in the program, as well as continuing great research efforts in 2019.