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Good Mentors Get Out of the Way, Undergraduates Accelerate the Advancement of Science

Darcy Peter and Emily Bristol work together to study greenhouse gas emissions from tundra pond in the Yukon-Kuskokwim River Delta.

Training undergraduate students to be creative and effective problem-solvers is central to the development of a new model of human-environment interactions. This generation of students will create this new model and the technical, conceptual and aesthetic innovations required to turn this vision into action. Those of us lucky enough to have the chance to ride along with them, and even guide them to some small degree, need to respect the unique contribution undergraduates make to the advancement of scientific understanding and their singular ability and desire to be transdisciplinary and to translate ideas into action.

The phrase ‘inquiry-based learning’ permeates discussion of teaching philosophies and strategies in higher education, however, it has become something of a platitude, often unaccompanied by clear, thoughtful discussion of the principles involved or how to incorporate it into courses or programs in a much deeper, comprehensive, and sophisticated way. The foundation of inquiry-based learning is the recognition that most students possess the capacity to take control of their own education, and will learn better if they are allowed to discover answers on their own.

The experiences that have the longest lasting impact come from a sense of disequilibrium, a moment of uncertainty, overcoming an obstacle or solving a novel problem, particularly when students take ownership and work out solutions for themselves. We can achieve the right mix of uncertainty and guidance by providing a framework that leaves space for the students to identify important and interesting questions, and allows them to explore new frontiers. We should be sure students have the resources and tools to successfully explore questions that they care about, not dictate what questions they should work on or lead them towards answers we already have.

My experience as a professor at St. Olaf College, and as a member of the Polaris Project (, an undergraduate research experience in the Arctic, have provided myriad examples of the magic that happens when a team of motivated and excited students are unleashed to explore a new environment. We all need to stop underestimating the potential undergraduate researchers have to advance science and start listening to their ideas, which are born of a fresh perspective and new way of looking at the world.

The central goal of the Polaris Project is to advance understanding of climate change in the Arctic through an integrated research, training, and outreach program that has at its heart a research expedition to a remote part of the Arctic. Since the projects inception in summer 2008 up until 2016, we traveled to the Northeast Science Station near the town of Cherskiy in the East Siberian Arctic. Starting in 2016, we have shifted our field work to the Yukon-Kuskokwim River Delta in southwestern, Alaska, and added two weeks of laboratory time at the Woods Hole Research Center in Falmouth, MA.

Over the years, we have had ~90 undergraduates travel with us, with nearly all of them presenting research results at the American Geophysical Union annual meeting, and more than half going to graduate school in Environmental Science.

I believe our integrative approach to training provides undergraduates with strong intellectual development and they bring fresh perspectives, creativity, and a unique willingness to take risks on new ideas that have an energizing effect on the research and outreach that is central to our work. With guidance and sufficient resources, undergraduates can drive the exploration of new research directions, contribute data to high impact scientific products, and effectively communicate the value of understanding the arctic system to the scientific community and the public. Placing faculty-student collaborative teams at the center of our research, education, and outreach programs will accelerate scientific understanding of the Arctic in the short-term, and in the long-term train a more diverse cohort of creative problem solvers that will increase our capacity for future progress in understanding the impacts of climate change in the Arctic.

My greatest moments as a scientist have happened as a direct result of the opportunities I've had to work with talented and motivated undergraduate researchers. The best decision I ever made was to allow my students to identify important and interesting patterns and questions, and to follow along with them as they tore apart the box I had constructed around myself. I'm grateful to all of them for the creativity and joy they brought to our work together.