Alternative Summer Experiences for Undergraduate Students During COVID-19

April 29, 2020

As a result of COVID-19, many colleges and universities are cancelling summer research programs for undergraduate students. The effects of this will extend beyond the summer. Undergraduate students may miss an opportunity to learn how to think critically in science. They also might be impacted in terms of selection of abstracts for undergraduate conferences or graduate school admission decisions.

While all students will be “in the same boat,” faculty and undergraduate students can start thinking of some ways to incorporate activities that will advance the scientific learning process.

Encourage Students To Keep Up with Primary Research

Faculty can be the leaders by creating or maintaining online journal clubs with undergraduate students in the lab or even with others in the department. You can also have students watch recorded research seminars and provide summaries. Another idea is to have students research a particular topic and update corresponding Wikipedia pages. This will teach them media literacy, writing, research development and critical thinking skills. Updating Wikipedia pages is almost like a literature review, which brings to mind another idea: have students conduct a literature review and share it with others through social media or virtual meeting platforms.

Give Students a Head Start by Teaching Research Ethics

One important skill in communicating and conducting research is to maintain scientific integrity. Faculty can use this summer to teach research ethics online. There are a couple ways of tackling this beyond the online lecture format. Here are some engaging activities students could try:

Engage Students in Virtual Research Projects

Citizen science, also known as crowd-sourced science, can be used to help students engage in the scientific learning process virtually. Most virtual research projects require students to analyze results using specific criteria laid out by the primary investigator and submit their results to an online portal. Then the analysis is followed up with a discussion. Here are some sites to check out that include microbiology and even broader science research projects: Zooniverse, Inaturalist, SciStarter and Datanuggets. In addition, watch out for virtual summer research programs. Dr. Juan Ramirez-Lugo from the University of Puerto Rico at Rio Piedras is currently working with directors from the NSF Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) programs to create remote research opportunities for bioinformatics students.

Help Students Increase Their Data Literacy

Whether students plan on working with small or large data sets, data literacy is becoming more important. Data literacy means knowing how to collect, process, manage, evaluate and use data. Also, projects that involve live specimens adds another layer that includes determining where to store data, how to preserve it and what to share with others. Try some case studies with undergraduate students in the lab. Also, try tools like Contentmine, which helps students comb through primary literature and pull out data which they can practice putting into graphs and charts using Tableau.

Suggest Technical Skills for Students to Learn

With science becoming more and more interdisciplinary, this summer is a chance for undergraduate students to learn new technical skills to enhance their research. You can suggest that students study computer science, statistics, bioinformatics, computational biology/chemistry and/or data science, just to name a few possibilities. If students experience anxiety when giving presentations, this is their chance to gain experience in science communication. If they need help with teaching skills or manuscript or grant writing, encourage them to check out ASM’s webinars.

Provide Feedback on Students’ Career Development

The summer can be used to help students craft their career goals and create an action plan. Encourage them to do informational interviews with professionals to learn what kinds of careers spark their interest. Regardless of whether a student is on track to attend graduate or health profession school or is planning to get a job, an important step is the interview. Take this time to help students hone their interview skills by doing virtual mock interviews with them. This is also a good time to encourage students to get their CV, resume, cover letter or personal statements together.

Author: Shilpa Gadwal

Shilpa Gadwal
Shilpa Gadwal is the Career Resources Specialist at ASM.