Undergraduate Research: What It Means for U.S. Competitiveness

Tuesday, June 5, 2007
Rayburn House Office Building

Opening Remarks

House STEM Caucus Co-Chair Representative Vernon Ehlers (R-MI)


Undergraduate research opportunities help attract and retain students in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, thus enhancing U.S. competitiveness. Funding from both federal and private sources has traditionally supported undergraduate research. Business-university partnerships provide an especially effective model for establishing and supporting robust programs that enhance both education and workforce development. This briefing will review the research supporting these claims and present university, business, and faculty perspectives.


Jodi Wesemann
Assistant Director of Education, American Chemical Society
Daniel Goroff Vice President for Academic Affairs, Harvey Mudd CollegeCarlo Parravano Director, Merck Institute for Science EducationCarlos Gutierrez Professor of Chemistry, California State University, Los Angeles

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Undergraduate Research and U. S. Competitiveness

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Traditional theories for national competitiveness focus on maximizing the number of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics workers and funding a single, best winner in grant competitions. Undergraduate research opportunities help attract and retain students to the STEM fields. During a briefing, Undergraduate Research: What it Means for U.S. Competitiveness, three speakers came to Capitol Hill to provide their perspectives. The June 5 event was hosted by the ACS Science & the Congress Project.

Dr. Daniel Goroff presented new theories for success in the global environment. Goroff, vice-president for Academic Affairs at Harvey Mudd College, emphasized investment in social capital as a keystone for competitiveness. One factor in investing in social capital is developing dense, far-reaching connections between people. “As we look at the world today and ask what’s needed, we have to talk about the importance of networks… The rootedness of networks of people make innovation pay off,” said Goroff. Investment in those networks entails paying attention to the organization of people and how they work on teams. Undergraduate research is a way for students to both learn science while building networks and engaging with others.

Industry has strong interest in keeping the U.S. competitive. Merck & Co., Inc. has granted almost $17 million in the past 10 years for undergraduate programs to support multidisciplinary research and address underrepresented groups in the STEM workforce. “There are important skills that one gains from undergraduate research. These are skills we find important for an individual to succeed at a company like Merck,” said Dr. Carlo Parravano, director of the Merck Institute for Science Education. He said students learn to communicate and how to collaborate during undergraduate research. They develop scientific literacy as well as contextual learning, the ability to solve problems in different environments. Parravano described the company’s support for undergraduate research as a way create partnerships with colleges and universities where Merck’s scientists come from and also as a way to uphold the company’s responsibility to help prepare future scientists.

Dr. Carlos Gutierrez is professor of chemistry at California State University at Los Angeles and provided a faculty perspective on undergraduate research. The university is a large urban, commuter institution with 84 percent minority students and an active research environment. Many students come from low-income households and work while in school. By seeking out grants, the university has made undergraduate research opportunities possible by purchasing protected time for students so they can engage in research while enrolled in classes. “[Undergraduate research is a] fabulous opportunity for students to find out if they like science. You can read about it all you like; it’s not until you do it that you find out where you fit in to science,” he said.

The panelists made a strong case for the importance of undergraduate research for U. S. competitiveness. The Council on Undergraduate Research (CUR) co-hosted the event in conjunction with the House STEM Education Caucus. Dr. Jodi Wesemann, assistant

Speakers left to right: Carlo Parravan, Carlos Gutierrez, Daniel Goroff,
Jodi Weseman