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Three things STEM undergrads might not know (that you can teach them!)

Navigating the world of scientific research and academia can be tricky as an undergraduate. Grad students and instructors can teach STEM undergrads these three things to make their lives easier!

I remember frequently being bewildered during my first year of college. I didn’t know how to talk to professors, I was terrified while writing my first research paper, and I was spending countless hours each week closely reading and deciphering research articles. Through excellent mentors and trial and error, these tasks became less and less daunting over time. Eventually, it became second nature, and was particularly useful as I became a graduate student immersed in scientific research and academic life. Navigating research, professional relationships, and academia becomes so familiar to graduate students and instructors over time that it can be hard to remember how daunting it all was at first. It wasn’t until I began working as a teaching assistant that I recognized how important this hidden curriculum [1] was to undergraduate success, and that many of these things could be explicitly taught in STEM classes. So, without further ado, here are three things we should be teaching STEM undergraduates:

1. How to find scientific articles (A.K.A. primary sources)

The internet gives us so much information at our fingertips, yet actually finding specific information from reliable sources can be quite tricky. Many undergraduates might not know that there are digital libraries and search engines they can use to find peer-reviewed scientific articles (original articles rigorously reviewed by experts on the subject) that serve as important primary sources. Web of Science and PubMed are excellent resources for searching databases of scientific literature. One of the most user-friendly academic search engines is Google Scholar. Simply type in keywords and see what comes up! Google Scholar allows you to filter searches by different time ranges, and it shows full-text HTML or PDF links to the articles in your search results whenever they are available. If you can’t find the full text of an article using these tools, your institution likely has an online library system you can sign into that will grant you access to articles found in a wide variety of scientific databases/collections. Still can’t find a full copy of that article? Email the corresponding author (usually stated within the paper’s author list) asking them for a copy of the article. Most scientists are happy to share their work if you ask.

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Figure 1. A diagram of the Google Scholar search engine in action. Image by Rachel Bell.

2. How to efficiently read scientific articles

One thing I struggled with as an undergraduate was efficiently reading a large number of scientific articles. Depending on the classes you take, you might have over a hundred pages worth of scientific papers to read a week. Closely reading all of these articles may be impossible some weeks, so it helps to know which sections to focus on. Many of the papers you’ll read in class are original research articles, which describe the rationale, methods, and results of a study.

Articles describing an original scientific study (as opposed to a review which summarizes many studies on a given topic) are typically divided into 4 sections: introduction, methods, results, and discussion. When reading original research articles for your classes, one approach is to first carefully read the abstract. Then, generally focus on the introduction and discussion. These sections will help you understand the hypotheses and key takeaways of the study. Unless you are in a methods-oriented course, you will be fine skimming the methods and results sections. Knowing what sections to focus on will help you make sense of your readings efficiently, with time to spare!

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Figure 2. Carefully reading through dozens of research articles every week can be hard work! Reading them efficiently helps you comprehend the research without getting overwhelmed. Photo credit: Dhruvkumar Patel 1563 via Wikimedia Commons.

3. How to find research opportunities

I recently taught a course for first-year STEM undergraduates. Many of them were interested in doing research during college, but they were unsure where to even begin. Luckily, many universities are aware that this can be daunting and have established offices and/or programs to help college students find these opportunities. For example, the University of Massachusetts, Amherst has the Office of Undergraduate Research & Studies. This office connects undergraduates to research positions and internships and also provides one-on-one meetings to help students during this process.

However, this is not the only way to find research positions, and it wasn’t how I started doing research as an undergraduate. You can often find amazing research opportunities just by talking to your instructors about their research (take advantage of those office hours!). Reaching out to professors in your department about their research and opportunities in their lab is a great way to find a project that interests you. Though it might seem intimidating, if you put yourself out there and see what research opportunities are available, you may be rewarded with an invaluable experience that will teach you in ways a traditional college course cannot.

So there you have it! This list is far from complete—there are many aspects of the hidden curriculum of academia that we as mentors and instructors need to begin explicitly teaching. When everyone is given the same set of tools to navigate academia and STEM in college, undergraduates across all backgrounds are more likely to succeed. We have the ability to make science more accessible and inclusive by directly providing these tools to undergraduates.


[1] Hariharan, Janani. I felt lost in a new academic culture. Then I learned about the hidden curriculum. Science (2019).

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