Where Did we Start

Kat and Katja spoke with people on the radio last Friday evening. One of the questions asked, "Where did this all begin?" allowed us the opportunity to revisit some memories. Below, we provide the first paper written together by Dakota and Dane. This paper served as a framework for how STEM-VRSE would be created, developed, and managed. Enjoy!


A Model for Research Groups in the 21st Century: Meeting the Call for Including Undergraduate Students in Education Research

Scholars in higher education agree on the importance of research experiences for graduate students (Gilmore, Vierya, Timmerman, Feldon, & Maher, 2015; Mabrouk, 2016; National Academy of Science [NAS], 2007a, 2007b; President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, 2012). They contend research experiences increase the likelihood of these students’ retention, graduation, and introduction into the academy (Feldon, Timmerman, Stowe, & Showman, 2010; Menella, 2015). Thus, prior models of faculty-led research groups focused around the mentoring relationship between faculty and graduate students (Allen, 2007).

The Importance of Undergraduate Research

            Mennella (2015) identifies participation in research as an important experience for undergraduate students. Specifically, Mennella asserts participation by undergraduate students in research leads to four positive outcomes: (a) heightened personal satisfaction, (b), improved content and professional learning (c), increased likelihood for retention, and (d) preparedness for graduate school and/or work environment. These positive outcomes are offset by several inhibiting factors, including: (a) student maturity, (b) professor commitment, (c) time requirements, and (d) the nature of scientific research (Mabrouk, 2016; Manak & Young, 2014; Menella, 2015). Thus, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has supported undergraduate research through programs such as the Research Experience for Undergraduates (Houser, Cahill, & Lemmons, 2014; REU). Manak and Young (2014), however, note that students majoring in human cognition fields (e.g. Education) remain underrepresented in both these programs and research groups in general.

The Need for a New Model of Undergraduate Research

The apprenticeship model (see Figure 1), a common example of mentoring, provides graduate students’ opportunities for professional development and socialization within the academy (Salsman, Dulaney, Chinta, Zascawage, & Joshi, 2013). This model strengthens the development of graduate researchers in the mold of professorial researchers. However, with calls for increased involvement of undergraduate students in research (Awong-Taylor, D’Costa, Giles, Leader, Pursell, Runck, & Mundie, 2016; Baker, Pifer, Lunsford, Greer, Ihas, 2015; Gilmore, Vierya, Timmerman, Feldon, & Maher, 2015), a new model for research groups in the 21st century requires professors (i.e., experts) to work with both graduate (i.e., novice-experts) and undergraduate students (i.e., novices). A review of literature reveals little understanding on the introduction of multiple knowledge and skill levels in 21st century research groups (Baker, Pifer, Lunsford, Greer, Ihas, 2015), with most of the literature focused on the perspectives of graduate or undergraduate students (Crisp & Cruz, 2009). The current study describes how faculty, graduate students, and undergraduate students work together to conduct research in higher education settings and how that work influenced their understanding of research and group work.

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Figure 1. Illustration of the common mentor-mentee relationship.


Distributed Expertise in a New Model for Undergraduate Research

Distributed expertise, also known as distributed cognition, describes the way individuals work in groups to complete complex tasks (Seitamaa-Hakkarainen, Viilo, & Hakkarainen, 2010; Swallow et al, 2015; Williamson & Cox, 2014). Through distributed expertise, individuals within groups possess expert knowledge on some topic required to complete complex tasks as their work adds to the collective knowledge for all individuals within groups (Williamson & Cox, 2014). In developing a new model for undergraduate research, expert researchers should consider drawing on the knowledge of both novice-expert and novice researchers. In doing so, all individuals within  research groups share in the ownership of completed and complex tasks.

Theoretical Framework

This study draws on literature related to the mentoring relationship developed between professors and graduate and/or undergraduate students. Palmer, Hunt, Neal, and Wuetherick (2015) describe the “considerable literature of mentoring relationships in higher education” and point out that much of this literature builds on a mentor-mentee model used to address learning outcomes for mentored students in replicating the desired attributes of the mentor (Crisp & Cruz, 2009; Jacobi, 1991; Schunk & Usher, 2013). In addition, prior research on faculty mentorship of graduate and undergraduate students in research groups has identified multiple supporting and inhibiting factors. Supporting factors include (a) supportive culture, (b) varied opportunities,    (c) personal research agendas, and (d) financial incentives. In contrast, inhibiting factors include (a) time, (b) inflexibility in funding, and (c) recognition (Baker, Pifer, Lunsford, Greer, Ihas, 2015; see Figure 2).

The apprenticeship model allows researchers to describe research groups composed of either experts and novice experts or experts and novices conducting research in narrow content fields. This model, thus, often contains at least one of the following assumptions: (a) professors, as experts, possess most of the critical knowledge required for completing the research program and/or (b) students, as expert novices or novices, within the research group wish to emulate faculty (Baker, Pifer, Lunsford, Greer, Ihas, 2015).


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Figure 2. Illustration of common research model identifeable by both faculty and students with students mimicing the academic success of faculty and faculty achieving personal success (e.g., completing a grant for future research).


The 21st century model for research groups likely (a) contains experts, novice-experts, and novices; (b) requires all members to perform multiple roles; (c) incorporates novice-experts and novices with critical knowledge, and; (d) encompasses multiple content fields. Our model for research groups, the Distributive Expertise Research Model (DERM), relies less on traditional mentoring and more on distributing layers of expertise through members’ roles (Torre, Vlueten, & Dolmans, 2016; see Figure 3). Our study uses the perspective of a-hierarchical group membership. This perspective does not begin with the assumption that experts possess most of the critical information required for completing the research program. In addition, this perspective assumes novice-experts and novices own their positions and expertise within the research group (see Figure 4). Thus, these individuals do not necessarily possess the desire to emulate the expert. To address the need for a 21st mode for research groups, the authors of this paper consider the following research questions:

·       Research Question 1: What expert skills are necessary in a research group for the 21st century?

·       Research Question 2: How do graduate and undergraduate students percieve their influence on research?


Methods and Procedures

Building on the concept of scaffolded reflection (Howitt & Wilson, 2016), our study contains results from a case study about a research group consisting of one university professor working in partnership with both graduate and undergraduate students. As a research group, we came together during the first year of a research program to study the role of virtual reality (VR) in STEM learning environments. This program was instituted at a large research university in the southwest region of the US. The first year of the program centered on solving two problems associated with research: (a) developing a research group and (b) acquiring resources to support members of the group and the program. Artifacts for our case study included biographical background information, notes from personal journals, emails and texts, and video taken during meetings. We conducted reflective analyses to identify themes specific within and across each artifact class specific to members of the research group.


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Figure 3. Illustration of the Distributed Expertise Research Model (DERM) used to generate an National Science Foundation grant.


The Experts

            To describe the DERM, we used individuals self-identifying as experts in one or more content areas important to the development of a research group and the completion of research. This section contains biographies about these experts. In creating the biographies, the experts focus on three issues related to their involvement in the DERM group; (a) personal background, (b) lived experiences important to the development of their expert status, and (c) the expert knowledge provided to other members within the research group.

            The University Professor. Dr. Bozeman is an adjunct professor in the College of Education at a large university situated in the southwest region of the US. He completed his BS in Biology at a small private college emphasizing liberal education and teaching. Subsequently, he completed graduate coursework and research in the fields of Biology, Chemistry, Education, and Statistics at small regional colleges emphasizing teaching and large Tier 1 universities emphasizing research. Ultimately, he completed his doctorate in Curriculum and Instruction at a large university. While completing his terminal degree he worked with a group of teachers conducting research on science education policy on both the state and local levels of government. In completing his degrees, Dr. Bozeman gained experience conducting research on Parkinsonian disorders, human immunodeficiency, waste water management, electrochemical reactions, and science education policy.

Dr. Bozeman possesses 23 years of experience as an educator in STEM education at the secondary and tertiary levels. He taught secondary science and mathematics for four years in a private school while completing work towards his MS in Biology. Before completing his thesis, Dr. Bozeman accepted a teaching position at a public secondary school located in a rural area close to a large university. He taught secondary science for three years in two public schools while completing coursework and research towards MS degrees in Statistics and Science Education. Eventually, Dr. Bozeman moved to a second city and taught courses in chemistry, statistics and research design at a large university for six years as he completed coursework and research towards the PhD in Curriculum and Instruction.

As a graduate student working on his doctorate, Dr. Bozeman participated in an NSF research program designed to support the development of experts in STEM education and policy, as well as, Education research methods. Since completing his PhD, he (a) worked in the private sector to help graduate students’ complete coursework and research towards the PhD and         (b) taught graduate courses in statistics and research design at a large university in the southwest region of the US. Thus, Dr. Bozeman is generally considered by other members in the research group to be an expert in conducting research in the field of Education. More specifically, he brings expertise in human cognition, survey design, and statistics.

Master’s Student in Education. Johanna is a graduate student in the College of Education at a large university in the southwest region of the US. From this same university, she received a BS in Civil Engineering with a minor in Mathematics. During her undergraduate career she used the knowledge and resources gained as a student in contributing to a student service organization focused on water-related engineering projects. After her first semester as an undergraduate, she took on leadership roles (e.g. overseeing internal affairs, coordinating events, etc.) in this organization. In her classes and extra-curricular activities, she took interest in the social dimension of STEM education; specifically, (a) how people learn STEM content, (b) the role of collaboration and communication in STEM research, and (c) influence of culture in STEM projects. These examples, underlying the social dimension of STEM education, motivated her to pursue a Master’s degree in Education. Upon completion of her degree, she plans to teach secondary mathematics and physics before returning to university and completing her PhD.

Johanna worked as an undergraduate researcher in the College of Engineering for three years. The primary focus of her research centered on structural engineering. As such, she was part of a research group comprised of a university professor and students pursuing undergraduate and graduate degrees in Civil Engineering. This experience provided her with an introduction to the research culture in the academy; however, this experience failed to provide her with a holistic understanding of how elements of research resulted in the generation of new knowledge.

Johanna possesses experience as a STEM student (i.e., Engineering) in a large, public university.  In addition, she exhibits deep understanding of organizational and personal skills developed from planning events and managing groups as a student-leader. Finally, she believes many of the skills (i.e. data acquisition and analysis) she gained while participating in research for her B.S. in Engineering transfers into other fields of research. Johanna brings the following expertise into the current research group: recent undergraduate experience in STEM. 

The Undergraduate Student in Psychology. Marcus is an undergraduate student studying Psychology at a large, public university in the southwest region of the US. In the future, he plans to attend Law school and work in the area of corporate law. Prior to attending his current university, Marcus attended and graduated from one of the high schools in which the research group anticipates studying. Thus, he possesses deep knowledge of the students, faculty, and institutional culture of the school.

As an undergraduate, Marcus possesses experience from conducting research with one of the graduate students within the current group. Specifically, he helped to establish the fundamental statistics in their research and assisted in data collection. He exhibits an interest in the use of statistics and application of software (i.e., SPSS) in the analysis of data associated with social science research. This interest developed because of coursework in his degree program. Also, as an undergraduate student, he developed skills in conducting reviews of literature and academic writing.

Marcus possesses expertise regarding the people and school for which the current group wishes to study. He also understands the importance of statistics in the analysis of data and the development of instruments for psychometric measurements. In addition, he expresses interest in this research as he believes a better understanding of academia for high school students can lead to the furthering of their secondary education. Marcus brings the following expertise into the current research group: data analysis, social ties, academic writing skills, and knowledge of statistical packages.

The Undergraduate Student in Technology. Dakota is a sophomore majoring in Technology Management within the College of Education at a large university in the southwest region of the US. He started and finished his high school education with the intent of attending the university he currently attends. Due to his focus, he centered his activities and education as a high school student to help facilitate a successful matriculation from secondary to tertiary schools. For example, as a student in high school he accepted leadership roles within (a) student government, (b) group projects, and (c) mentoring programs.

He possesses expertise derived largely from work on personal projects using 21st century technologies. Many of these projects have expanded into group (i.e. ) or commerce based projects. In his second year of high school, for example, he began learning web development for personal enjoyment. Since learning web development strategies, he has developed sites for a variety of clients, including; artists, family members, and community organizations. Since graduating from high school, he has worked as a video production assistant at his university, studied cybersecurity, and worked on multiple technology-based projects (i.e. podcasts and classroom technology). His recent experiences have allowed him to develop a unique knowledge in the initial use of technology for growing projects. 

As an undergraduate student in a technology field, Alexander brings a developing expertise on the use of technology educational applications. His work on several distance projects with clients, allows him to provide expertise on methods of communication and research facilitation through web based platforms and 21st century technologies. In addition, he possesses expertise on technology trends and hardware development for research. Overall, he is considered by other members in the research group to be a expert in the use of technology to cultivate the research environment and allow for the research to carried out without guesswork in regards to the technology.

The Data

            The members of the research group generated multiple data streams in working to complete the NSF grant. In this section, we describe the following data streams: (a) email, (b) text messages, (c) meeting notes, and (d) website.

            Email. All group members made use of email communication. The examples in Appendix A provide evidence of members’ use of email. All members of the group used the university’s email system to connect and remain in contact during the semester. The members of the group generated over 50 emails during the course of the semester.

            Text Messages. All group members made use of text messages. The examples in Appendix B provide evidence of members’ use of text messages. Members of the group used personal telephones to connect and remain in contact during the semester. The members generated over 100 text messages during the course of the semester.

            Meeting Notes. All members received a standardized weekly summary of meeting notes. The example in Appendix C provides evidence of the meeting notes members received. Meeting notes were created by Dr. Bozeman and shared with the members of the group at the beginning of weekly meetings. Dr. Bozeman generated 10 meeting notes during the course of the semester.

Website. All members reviewed the STEM-VRSE website and were allowed to offer opinions on the development of the site. Members of the group worked together in improving the website during the course of the semester.

The Analysis

Members of the DERM group reviewed the data streams in a reflective manner to identify benefits and opportunities from participation in the group. In reviewing the data streams, the group reached four conclusions about the data streams: (a) email served as a method for maintaining group direction, (b) text messages provided opportunities to combine both professional and personal interactions, (c) meeting notes acted as a blueprint for current and future activities by members and the group, and (d) the website exhibited evidence of work completed on the grant application and future research goals. In this section, we describe our experiences as members of the DERM group.

Master’s Student in Education. Johanna grew as an expert because of her access to the distributed expertise of the research group. The construction of the group as an assembly of experts rather than one expert leading several pupils created a culture in which she felt encouraged to ask questions. Even when these questions caused the discussion to diverge from the main point, she observed that those discussions were valued as a learning experience for everyone in the group. During these discussions she began to gain a comprehensive understanding of the research process. Specifically, she learned about the importance of defining research questions, conducting a review, selecting target variables and survey instruments, applying for approval through the university, and completing grants.

The expertise of individuals in the group was an additional source of information for Johanna. For example, she drew from Dane’s expertise to improve her writing. In addition, she drew from Dakota’s expertise to better understand the value and use of website creation and technology. As a result, she drew upon not only from the expertise of the group as a whole, but also the expertise of the individuals within the group.   

In addition to her growth from the expertise of other individual within the group, Johanna experienced growth from her leadership roles in the group. Her primary contribution was generating figures to explain models generated by the group. The group discussed the primary components of these models and how to illustrate components. She then drafted several figures for each model to share with the group at the next meeting. Throughout the first drafting process she collaborated with Luke to discuss how geometric shapes could be used to illustrate the a-hierarchical quality of the DERM group. Various drafts were created and discussed during group meetings until production of the final figures. During this process, she learned how components of a picture can have significant and sometimes different meanings to different people.

Johanna also had the experience of sharing her expertise and leading a discussion regarding graduate funding opportunities. The purpose of this discussion was to inform the undergraduates in the group about the graduate experience. Where her expertise ended Luke and Dane stepped in to fill in the gaps. Having her start the discussion with two more knowledgeable experts in the group had two outcomes. First, because she took the lead in the group, she had the opportunity to practice organizing her thoughts in a cohesive manner to the group. Second, her led discussion to the group illuminated the gaps in her understanding of the subject (i.e., the graduate experience). In doing so, the two more experienced experts (i.e. Luke and Dane) took the role of filling in gaps generated by her lack of knowledge or understanding. In addition, this allowed her to improve her own understanding of the graduate experience.

The Undergraduate Student in Psychology. After actively seeking out this research group I can say that I have gained skills and resources that I otherwise would not have had. I brought in a critical eye and poked holes in everything that I could, which comes natural to me, but the group challenged me to patch those holes after I poked them. I gained a number of contacts that will be helpful to me in the future when applying to Law School. Working with this group has also expanded my working knowledge of undergraduate research in general but not in the normal sense; instead of just being given a task and a completion date I was able to provide valuable input and be heard. All group members were treated equally as colleagues and not with some as leader figures while others were subordinates. Each member’s talents were utilized to the utmost of their capabilities and when someone was considered to be more of an expert they stepped up. This process allowed each researcher to grow and maintained a high level of productivity.

The Undergraduate Student in Technology. Howdy, my name is Dakota Brown. I am a sophomore at Texas A&M University and currently on a semester long study abroad trip to New Zealand. How I got here is relatively simple, I wanted to travel. I wanted to experience and define my own adventure. However, long before I left, the adventure started to gain traction in other directions. That direction would be towards research in human cognition. About a year before I arrived here, I had my first introduction to research and little did I know it would come to consume the remainder of the year.

            In early 2016, I worked as a technology student worker for the College of Education. Over time I got to know the people in the building and ultimately noticed someone using a virtual reality headset. As I had the same headset, this led to an introduction and a conversation on a research idea. This person was Dr. Bozeman and for several weeks we played with the technology, bouncing ideas back and forth. Ultimately, he introduced me to an idea he had been processing for several years. This idea became STEM-VRSE.

            Suddenly, this technology that had captivated myself and Dr. Bozeman became an opportunity. For myself, it was the opportunity I had been looking for and could have never seen coming. I had spent months changing my career path, adding, and dropping minors, and in general being stressed over the question of what I was going to do for the rest of my life. After all, choosing one thing had never worked in the past for me and now I was running out of options. So, I gave it a chance. I spent the next semester in this research group as a novice learning the basics of research. All of this to understand the traditional model of research and our proposed distributed expertise research model, all without any prior experience.  

            With all that in mind, we now come back to where I am today. Yes, I am on an island but I am also pursuing a Ph.D., actively working on both the DERM Model and STEMVRSE research, and working towards my first published paper. I could have remained on my path towards a degree in Technology Management and Cybersecurity, and while it remains an aspect, it is but simply a stepping stone to what I hope to accomplish. I had an opportunity to be a part of something and I took it. That decision led to a life altering experience. Of course, my story is but one example of what has and could happen to others. The question is how do we give that opportunity to other students and how do we do so in a way these students choose to remain. That is where the DERM model and STEM-VRSE come into play.

The DERM model allowed me to play a pivotal role in the research group. I went through the process of designing and redesigning a website adjusting the purpose and scope as I gained more knowledge. I then had to present the site in front of the group as the expert on the content. Without anyone standing over me I could adjust and modify the site as needed based on the groups and my own criticism, rather than simply being delivered a list of changes to make. Nearly a year later, and the website is on an entirely different level of quality and professionalism with compliments coming from members of the subject field and in web design. I can recall my thought process when designing then and look at it now and identify the differences in the process that have led to my gained expertise. While web design is the most prominent example, it is not the only one. Due to my increased role and the reliance placed on me by group members, I was forced to adapt and learn. This has shown in my writing, operations management, and even in my studies. This model has augmented my ability and desire to learn in a manner that traditional classes and research could not do.


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Figure 4. Illustration of DERM describing both faculty and students expert input in the success of research outcome (e.g., completing a grant for conducting research).


Results and Conclusions

Our analyses of notes, emails, texts, and video, indicate the classical model of mentorship may not apply for research groups in the 21st century. For example, in our case study, the faculty member worked as an adjunct member at the university in which all group members attended. The faculty member is a former STEM teacher interested in the inclusion of Virtual Reality (VR) within secondary schools. The doctoral member has prior experience teaching in secondary schools and higher education, conducting research, and leading undergraduate researchers within the content field of STEM education. In addition, he is conducting his thesis research on learning progressions, but views our study as an opportunity to develop collaborative connections for future research. Finally, our undergraduate members do not major in the field of Education, but are interested in differing content fields (i.e., Technology Management, Engineering, and Psychology) associated with the research program. In addition, one of these undergraduate members views the research as an opportunity to make contacts in the business world and as a possible source of income.

Educational or Scientific Importance

            Our study describes an a-hierarchical model for research groups in the 21st century exhibiting distributive expertise for all members. The apprenticeship model worked in higher education when faculty members were the primary source of knowledge and financial support for graduate students wishing to emulate their faculty mentors. With the call for greater involvement of undergraduate students in research, the apprenticeship model for describing research groups in higher education no longer applies. As a result, a need exists in higher education to consider and implement new models for research groups in the 21st century. We believe the DERM model meets this need.

Todd Bozeman