Teaching model gets students out of the classroom and into the field

Undergraduate students Bryce Kushmerick-McCune (left) and Heather E. Pickett present their research at the National Conference on Undergraduate Research.

Getting degree-related work experience as an undergraduate can be extremely beneficial to a student’s job hunt. 

George Mason University professor Danielle S. Rudes believes that anyone willing to put in the work should be given the opportunity to conduct research and gain experience in their field. That’s why she started a lab specifically for undergraduate research. 

The Center for Advancing Correctional Excellence (ACE!) at Mason hosts a lab for undergraduates who want experiences in the fields of criminology, law and society. Rudes, associate professor of Department of Criminology, Law and Society, co-runs the center with University Professor Faye Taxman. Rudes said she started the lab after one of her undergraduate students was interested in working with her on a research project to gain field experience.

“I love working with undergrads. They just want to learn from you,” said Rudes. “They're so grateful for the experience because they don't get this kind of experience in the social sciences. We just don't have labs the same way that biology, psychology, or chemistry does, where you can work on a professor's big projects to get real-world research experience.”

In addition to student research, graduate students who work at ACE! are encouraged to mentor the undergraduate students in which they gain valuable mentoring experience. Rudes calls this the “nested mentoring model.”

“The nested mentoring model means that the undergraduate students are supervised by me,” said Rudes. “But on a day-to-day basis, they work directly with the graduate students.”

Students in the ACE! Undergraduate Lab said this mentoring model can be less intimidating. Taylor Hartwell, graduate research assistant at ACE! and a doctoral student in criminology, law and society, works directly with the undergraduates, trains them, keeps tracks of their hours and assigns them tasks. Hartwell said that mentoring students at ACE! has been one of the most beneficial parts of her experience at Mason. 

“I would say it's just a more accessible and more comfortable way of learning these things,” said Kendra Coleman, a senior majoring in criminology, law and society. “I don’t feel like I'm intimidated or that I have to be the best right off the bat.” 

There is no criteria for joining the lab—any student, no matter the degree field or level, who is willing to put in the work is welcome to participate in the ACE! Undergrad Lab. They can come as part of a practicum class, through grant-funded programs like those offered in the Office of Student Scholarship, Creative Activities, and Research (OSCAR), or just volunteer.  

“Everybody deserves a chance to do research. It’s inspiring to get to work with them, and it’s how future researchers are made. Everyone needs to start somewhere, why not at ACE!?” said Rudes.

The students, both undergraduate and graduate, work on research projects, such as one of Rudes’ long-term projects, which examines life inside solitary confinement units in the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections. 

In working on these projects, graduate students learn valuable mentoring skills—skills that Rudes says are rarely taught in graduate programs—and undergraduates learn essential skills to their field like qualitative coding for Rudes’ study. The students are also able to collect data and create their own studies. Some students have gone on to present their research at regional, national and international conferences. Some have even published and won awards for their research.  

“Undergraduate research can give you such a structured career path from such a young age,” said Bryce Kushmerick-McCune, a junior in criminology, law and society. “I didn't really even think about research before I started on the prison project, and then I was here and all of a sudden I kind of fell in love with it.”