Sanford School SUPER Program Opens Research Career Opportunities for Undergrad Students

For some undergraduate students previously unaware of a future in research-focused careers, the summer has offered a time to relax but also to get a leg-up in the fields of interest. The T. Denny Sanford School of Social and Family Dynamics has been providing this opportunity for underrepresented students for the past three years with its Summer Undergraduate Program for Engaging with Research (SUPER) program. But like the rest of ASU (and the world), this program faced an uncertain future as COVID-19 threatened to derail its six-week run, starting in May.

SUPER’s chairs quickly retooled the program for a learning experience different from what they had orchestrated for the past two years. Although the lead-up was not conventional, the results of such a shift were a pleasant surprise. “We do think that one of the key ingredients of the program is the personal connection we make between faculty and students,” said Manuela Jimenez Herrera, Assistant Research Professor at the Sanford School and co-chair of SUPER. “So we were concerned about that piece when going online. But I am honestly grateful that we did.”

In fact, going online broadened the possibilities for the SUPER students, who are already identified as underrepresented in research areas. “We define underrepresented broadly,” explained Jimenez. “But realistically, the students we tend to get the most are first-generation students and those underrepresented racially or ethnically.”

"Putting together six weeks of panelists and speakers on Zoom seemed daunting at first," added Cassandra Cotton, Assistant Professor at the Sanford School and SUPER co-chair. "But the response from our SSFD faculty, postdocs, grad students, and past SUPER fellows was phenomenal."

Similarly, the move online brought new possibilities to  the SUPER fellows with research professionals outside academia. In past summers, this process had been somewhat limited, Jimenez said. “It was hard to distinguish paths away from the university and academia,” she added. But by taking place online, the SUPER program was able to engage not only researchers from ASU and the Phoenix area, but also other industries and locations, like one panelist from the United States Census.

“This year, we had a record 44 people join us on Zoom to talk to the fellows about their academic trajectories, research, and navigating academia and research careers,” Cotton said. “Zoom made it possible to bring so many more people and more diverse perspectives to our fellows, and our colleagues' enthusiasm to support the program was palpable."

“The students found the panels very engaging,” Jimenez said, and added that panels and speaking opportunities will be taking place online next year, regardless of the full extent of a potential in-person/hybrid model.

Jimenez admitted her and her colleagues were not sure how a program as intense as SUPER, which sees its students conduct research, perform data analysis and present their research findings pertaining to a research question they posed, would function purely online. But students quickly locked into the new modality.

Elisa Thomas was pleased with how effectively the online course was administered. In spite of potential computer “fatigue,” the co-chairs “kept the program engaging with different activities, lessons and speakers and we were able to take short breaks when we needed,” Thomas said. Impressed with the preparation in spite of the short lead time to shift how the program worked, Thomas thought it was a key example of how digital immersive programs can succeed. “I believe with enough preparation, all online classes can be held in creative engaging ways that still allow a deep learning of the material.”

Another student, Jamie Medina, found that the SUPER program’s format this year opened new doors. “The professors were always highly responsive,” Medina said. “Since the [research] interviews were done through Zoom, we were able to transcribe and code the interviews through the resources that were provided by the software. And for our final presentation, we were able to have a large audience, which was great because several faculty members were able to hear the research that we conducted throughout the six weeks.” Medina concluded that the flexibility of the SUPER program allowed students “to gain a great amount of research experience and meet faculty members to help with our networking skills.”

And the experience the students gained couldn’t have been more timely. As part of this year’s program, students examined:

  • how people’s racial experiences influence their political participation

  • how young people view religion and spirituality and how it informs their political views

  • why Latinas do not feel a full sense of belonging even after being born and raised in America

  • what hinders or encourages young Latinas in becoming politically engaged

  • how mixed race adolescents experience racial conflict within families

  • how young white Americans conceptualize white identity

As a guided research program, SUPER gives students the opportunity to engage with larger research projects, and in this case, Jimenez explained, they contributed to one headed by Sanford School faculty member Nilda Flores-Gonzalez, investigating the racial, ethnic and political identities of youth in Arizona. As part of their work within this project, the students interviewed young people using Zoom, collecting data in a new move for the program. “If it hadn’t been for Zoom, that plan would have been struck,” Jimenez said.

In spite of the hesitance and uncertain state of the world, the SUPER program ended up demonstrating the cohesion of ASU’s new learning experiences. “More than anything, we’re social scientists [at the Sanford School], we care about relationships and interactions,” Jimenez said. “And we were worried that we weren’t going to get the results we usually get through this setting. But we got very good results that were very similar to what we would have gotten in previous years. We were very pleasantly surprised, and we want others to know that this was such a positive experience.”