Turning Undergraduates on to Psychological Research

By William C. Howell, PhD, APA Executive Director for Science
Most of the sciences today are affected by the current trend in which undergraduates are moving away from basic science. Psychology, which is attracting record numbers of undergraduates to its courses and major, is no exception. Few of our students voluntarily seek out hard-core science offerings, and fewer still consider research-oriented careers. Those who participate in research often do so merely to gain an edge with the admissions committees--which they hope will admit them to some clinical or counseling program. Because I've discussed this problem before in connection with various Science Directorate programs, I won't go into it again. However, the cover story of this issue describes yet another initiative--a Psychological Science Institute for freshmen and sophomores, funded out of the special science allocation--which further addresses the problem.

But this column isn't about the Directorate, or even APA. It's about some of the things the folks closest to the problem-- concerned and committed college teachers--have come up with that seem to work. I have space for only a couple of examples, but they are so dramatic, they deserve all the publicity and support they can get. And I'm finding there are many others, too.

Last fall I visited the Kentucky State Psychological Association annual meeting, and I witnessed an amazing event: the Psych Bowl championships. This is a statewide competition patterned along the lines of TV's College Bowl, the questions heavily laden with scientific content. Teams from colleges and universities around the state prepare for this all year, are coached by faculty, and meet before large crowds of convention attendees in the final showdown. It is exciting to watch, and the student participants--along with their supporters--are obviously caught up in it.

Kentucky has been holding Psych Bowl for years, and it has developed into an effective means for getting students turned on to psychology. Faculty members I talked to were equally enthusiastic, pointing out that the benefits extend well beyond encouraging students to memorize psychology facts. The excitement spills over into other activities, including research. I have heard that some other states are so impressed by what Kentucky has done that they are fashioning similar programs.

Another inspirational program is the Carolinas Conference. I attended a session at the Southeastern Psychological Association Convention in which this student-run conference, which has been around for 21 years, was described. Although I knew of its existence, I had no idea how successful the conference has been as a vehicle for involving students in research. Held in April each year, and alternately hosted by orth Carolina State University and Meredith College, it is regularly attended by several hundred students from 5 to 10 states, and the numbers are growing. Last year■s attendance was 325, representing 43 schools, and 115 students presented research papers. An invited speaker is featured, and the list includes many of the nation's leading researchers.

Clearly, students can still be attracted to psychological research, but it requires creative strategies and serious effort. Somebody, after all, has to do the mentoring, and the more successful the initiative, the more mentoring there is to do! We in the national associations delude ourselves into thinking the future of psychological science rests in our hands. It doesn't. We can certainly help, but in the final analysis, the key to turning students on to psychological research lies in the ingenuity of dedicated faculty members at Meredith, North Carolina State, Western Kentucky, Berea, and all the others. We need to learn from them rather than the other way around.

[ guffaws to / ]