This summer, I’ve been involved in several efforts to recruit students to STEM. For one of these events, I have a total of three hours to introduce incoming freshman to Biology at Michigan (in all its varied forms), to try to make them feel more connected to campus in general and biologists on campus in particular, and, ideally, to get them to consider working in a lab next year. That’s a tall order!
For the first hour, I plan on having a few people give talks that highlight some of the breadth of biology-related research that is done on campus – while realizing that it is hopeless to really try to span that breadth with just four talks, and biasing things a bit towards applied topics, which I think incoming students tend to find more engaging. For the second hour, I plan to have a panel made up of current students. We’ll also have two Program in Biology/Neuroscience Advising Coordinators there, since they will be best equipped to answer questions about the nuts-and-bolts of the different major options.
For the third hour, though, I’m torn. The model that the other departments will use will be to do lab tours during this hour. And that was initially my plan. But then I started to wonder if something focused more on Grand Challenges in Biology* might be more fun and a better use of time. Part of the issue is simply the logistic one of the biologists being spread out across several buildings, so there would be as much time spent walking between labs as there would be touring the labs. Another part of the issue is that I feel like it gives a biased view of biology in general and ecology in particular – watching someone work at a computer isn’t very exciting, so we tend to skip the computational labs, and it isn’t possible to take people to the field during a 10 minute tour. It’s also possible I have physics envy after hearing the physicists talk about which labs have the best lasers for tours!**
This all has me wondering: has anyone studied the effect of short lab tours on recruitment efforts, comparing them to other potential activities? Are they effective? If anyone knows of such studies, I would love it if you posted a link in the comments!
Anecdotally, students sometimes do seem really excited by the tours. I know for other programs that have done something similar, the lab tours were listed as a highlight by some students at the end of the event. But how many of them would have been engaged by sitting down in a small group with faculty and talking about the most exciting areas of current research? And what makes for an engaging lab tour? Presumably some depends on the person leading the tour, but I’m guessing the topic of research in the lab matters, too, as does the presence of fancy equipment (or at least something fun — we stored our kayak in the lab at Georgia Tech, and visitors always loved seeing that).
For my part, I never did one of these short lab tours as a student. I did have the very good fortune of being on a tour of Cold Spring Harbor Labs with just a few other students, when I was a senior in high school. It was a pretty long tour, and really exciting.*** I also remember, when I started at Cornell, doing a freshman research experience that involved spending one evening in a plant biology lab, attempting to give plants tumors. But that was 2-3 hours on its own, not a simple 10 minute tour. And, while I thought it was interesting, I’m not sure it had much of an effect on me beyond me getting a plant for my dorm room.
Over the years, I’ve given several short tours of my lab to various groups of students. I show them some Daphnia, talk about what we do and why it’s important, and answer a few questions. But I never feel like it’s that engaging. Perhaps that’s a sign that I’m doing it wrong? I may be biased by lab outreach things we do where we have students sample lakes and look at plankton — those are really fun and exciting, but also generally with a younger group of students, and right on the dock of a lake.
If given a choice between short lab tours, grand challenges in biology, or something else, what would you choose? Which do you think is most effective at engaging undergraduates? And, again, if anyone knows of research on this area, I would love to hear about it! And, if you’ve given these tours or taken them: do you think they’re effective? What do you think makes them more likely to be effective?
* I’ll have a follow up post on this general topic next week. I recently did an event with this format, and thought it worked really well. The challenges I talked about were linking genotype to phenotype (and figuring out how environment influences that link) and about understanding biodiversity.
** Then again, one of the speakers in the first hour, Micaela Martinez-Bakker, will talk about how ecology can inform disease eradication efforts, so perhaps we can just use this recent xkcd to recruit people to biology!
*** We were supposed to meet with Watson, too, but he was at a funeral. We did get to sit in his office, though, which I thought was pretty cool.
Postscript: After writing this post, I had a different meeting where we were discussing plans for a recruitment weekend for grad students. The topic of whether to do lab tours came up, which I found amusing. Once again, there doesn’t seem to be a consensus on whether they’re valuable. In this case, the issues are a little different — we aren’t trying to get the students interested in EEB or Biology, but rather to convince them that Michigan is a good place for them to be a graduate student. And they’ve almost all already worked in a lab, so there isn’t the gee-whiz-I’m-in-a-lab factor. But we still tend to feature lab tours with these things. So, I will extend my questions above to ask if anyone knows of literature related to grad-recruitment, and what practices are most effective (including for students from underrepresented groups).