Evidence-based practice (EBP) presupposes that nurses are well educated in research and can make the connections between research and clinical practice. However, getting students to be interested in and excited about research can be a challenge. For more than 20 years, the Manitoba Centre for Nursing and Health Research (MCNHR) at the Faculty of Nursing, University of Manitoba, has provided undergraduate nursing students with research experience as student research assistants (RAs). Since 2000, more than 40 undergraduate nursing students (three to four per year) have been trained as RAs. However, in the summer of 2010, the Summer Internship Program pilot project involved revamping the existing work-for-hire approach to a new model that more actively engaged undergraduate students in faculty research projects. This new model, a summer internship program, combined paid employment with student learning in a deliberate way—an added dimension of one-to-one faculty–student research collaboration with increased opportunities for mentorship, collaboration, and scholarship.
Nursing research as a basis for EBP is vital to improving the care of patients and their families in our rapidly changing health care environment. Although all undergraduate nursing students receive some formal education in research that is needed for evidence-based practice, most undergraduate curricula focus primarily on developing the cognitive knowledge needed to become good consumers of research, and rarely are students given the opportunity to become active participants in research (Vessey & DeMarco, 2008). Although important, this approach may lead new nurses to believe that research is for others (e.g., nurses with master’s and graduate degrees and experienced nurses) (Kennel, Burns, & Horn, 2009) and not something in which they may be involved themselves.
The benefits to engaging undergraduate students in research are well documented. Students who have research experiences have a better understanding of research methods and their application to clinical practice, are more likely to author or co-author publications and presentations, and are more likely to use these experiences in shaping their career trajectories, including the pursuit of graduate education (Landrum & Nelsen, 2002; Reutter et al., 2010; Vessey & DeMarco, 2008). Evidence of scholarship on a student’s curriculum vitae will also enhance their competitiveness in applying for student awards, scholarships, and funding.
The need to assist today’s nursing students in furthering their career and educational trajectories is imperative not only for the health care system but also for academia, given projections of growing nursing faculty shortages (Reutter et al., 2010). Encouraging nurses to complete their doctoral education at younger ages is seen as a central strategy to address nursing faculty shortages. This strategy requires that students develop an appreciation and a passion for the generation of new knowledge and its translation into practice (Vessey & DeMarco, 2008).
Program Objectives and Goals
The main objective of the Summer Internship Program was to facilitate the participation of undergraduate nursing students in faculty research and to increase their interest in research and research utilization. Several short-term and long-term program goals were identified to guide the development and implementation of this program. The short-term goals were to (a) strengthen the research preparation of high-achieving undergraduate nursing students; (b) provide students with the opportunity to be integrated into one or more faculty research projects; and (c) provide students with the opportunity to be involved in scholarship (reports, publications, presentations). The long-term goals were to (a) prepare students to be more intelligent consumers and producers of research in the future by actively engaging them in the research process and (b) facilitate talented undergraduates’ earlier transition to graduate studies and position them for success in achieving research awards and scholarships.
The Summer Internship Program pilot project involved revamping the work-for-hire approach for research assistantships to a new model for engaging students in faculty research that (a) allowed students to be gainfully employed while engaging them in student learning, scientific inquiry, and research mentorships through one-to-one faculty–student research collaborations and (b) exposed them to a wide variety of research activities through assisting in the provision of MCNHR research support services. We anticipated that this synergistic combination would provide a greater learning experience than involvement solely in either a one-to-one faculty–student research project or in supporting requests for research projects only.
The framework guiding this new program is the Characteristics of Excellence in Undergraduate Research (COEUR), which is based on best practices to support and sustain highly effective undergraduate research environments (The Council on Undergraduate Research, 2012). These characteristics include research infrastructure, mentorship, professional development, student compensation, and program evaluation.
Key Program Elements
Five undergraduate nursing students were hired as full-time summer interns for 17 weeks from May to August and were given a dedicated desktop workspace and access to administrative and technical staff. Faculty members were invited to submit an application to work one-to-one with a summer intern for 1 to 4 days per week for up to 15 weeks to integrate them into a new or existing research project. We allowed flexibility in the amount of hours and the number of weeks to facilitate faculty involvement and to recognize that the phases of different research studies—which varied from the start of a study with a focus on data collection to the end of a study with a focus on data analysis and dissemination activities—would create variation in the needs and opportunities for student involvement. In exchange for receiving extra help from summer interns, it was expected that faculty participate in developing and nurturing a culture of research engagement by providing mentorship, training, and support, as well as a commitment to the objectives and goals of the program. The faculty projects included critical care nurses’ experiences of conflict in the intensive care unit, ethical practice in palliative home care, continuity of care for individuals living with intellectual disability, family health needs assessment with a First Nations community, long-term resident and family interaction with a robotic seal, tobacco control and health equity and social justice topics, improving handoffs between hospital units, and knowledge needs and priorities in intellectual and development disabilities. Several of these projects provided funds to offset the costs of the program. Additional funds from government summer job programs for students and a health professional research training award from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research all combined to cover more than 75% of the costs of the interns’ wages for the summer. Further funding for program development and evaluation was provided by the Faculty of Nursing Endowment Fund.
Summer interns received both one-to-one training and group training that we hoped would help foster and cultivate their research skill development and learning. The MCNHR already had a strong summer research–training program in place and further developed this training program on the basis of the needs of the Summer Internship Program participants. Workshops included literature searching, interviewing, taking field notes, and using data analysis software (SPSS® for quantitative data analysis, NVivo for qualitative data analysis). In addition, interns participated in several informal sessions, such as a survival tips session facilitated by the two senior interns and returning RAs and an orientation session facilitated by the MCNHR supervisor. The interns received further individual training and support from faculty mentors and the MCNHR supervisor, depending on the nature of the projects and tasks in which they were involved. The interns also supported each other by pooling their collective expertise and experience.
At the end of the Summer Internship Program, a half-day research day was held, during which interns showcased one of their summer projects through a poster presentation. Invitations to attend the research day were circulated to members of the MCNHR faculty and staff. This research day not only provided a forum in which to showcase the work of summer interns and faculty participants, but it also provided an opportunity to celebrate the program’s accomplishments. It was anticipated that through this research day we would be able to generate awareness, excitement, and future interest in the program from faculty and students.
Evaluation: The Interns’ Perspectives
Both process and outcome evaluations were conducted as part of this pilot project. Summer interns (N = 5) were invited to provide qualitative (focus group, written comments, or both) and quantitative (survey) feedback on this pilot project. On the last day of the program, summer interns were asked to complete a self-administered survey questionnaire that asked about their skill attainment and involvement in research activities, the quality of their internship experience, their satisfaction with the program, and whether the internship stimulated an increased interest in research and graduate education. Summer interns were also asked to participate in a focus group discussion, facilitated by an individual who was not directly involved in the program, to discuss strengths and challenges of their experiences in the Summer Internship Program and to make recommendations to improve the program for future faculty mentors and interns.
One of the short-term goals of the program was to strengthen the research preparation of high-achieving undergraduate nursing students. On a scale of 1 (low) to 10 (high), the interns rated their research skills at a mean of 5.2 (SD = 1.3) at the beginning of the program, and their ratings increased to a mean of 8.2 (SD = 0.4) by the end of the program. They thought their skills had increased as a result of the comprehensive formal training they received, as well as through the research tasks in which they were involved. All interns indicated that their communication skills were developed while participating in the program. Four of the five interns also felt that information literacy skills, computer skills, and qualitative data management and analysis skills were also developed. All the interns agreed they had learned how the tasks they were assigned throughout the summer fit into the bigger research projects. All five interns indicated the program increased their understanding of nursing research “very much.” In the focus group discussion, one student related that she felt the program allowed her to “learn about the research process in a much better way than a course could teach.” Finally, the interns were asked how prepared they felt to use the research findings in clinical practice as a result of the Summer Internship Program. Four of the five interns indicated feeling “very well prepared” to use research findings, and one indicated feeling “somewhat prepared.” However, it is important to recognize that although students may perceive being able to use the research findings in practice, they are novices and will require more experience before they can use research in their practice.
Building Connections With Faculty and Students
As a result of participating in the Summer Internship Program, the interns cultivated new connections and relationships with faculty and other students. Interns developed collegial relationships with individual faculty members, as well as with other students and staff working on research projects. These interactions made the interns feel like they were a part of a research team and a part of the faculty of nursing in a new and different way. They also appreciated the responsibility that was given to them and that they were able to self-manage their time. The opportunity to work part time in the fall and winter terms and to continue on some of the projects was considered to be a huge benefit by the interns.
One of the objectives of the Summer Internship Program was to provide interns with a faculty research mentor to teach them about the research process and provide them with advice and guidance. Although the mentorship aspect of the program was a strength when it was embraced by the faculty mentors, it presented as a challenge in some cases. The interns felt that the level to which the faculty mentors embraced the mentorship component of the program varied. One intern felt the faculty mentors needed to see this opportunity as a way of engaging future graduate students. Another intern felt the faculty mentor viewed interns as individuals who could get a number of menial tasks completed for mentors and spent little time actually mentoring. Ensuring that mentors understand their roles as mentors should improve the experience.
Graduate School Aspiration
The Summer Internship Program provided the interns with training and experiences that helped them to explore whether they should enter graduate school at some point in their careers. Three of the interns felt their experience in the program made them “more likely” and the remaining two interns felt their program experience made it “somewhat more likely” that they would pursue graduate studies at some point in the future. One intern commented, “Before the idea of conducting research seemed daunting, if not impossible. Now that I have participated and understand the process, I feel grad school is something I can accomplish.”
Because this was a new program, there were some challenges, including how to handle communication and reporting. The learning curve was steep for everyone, so involving the interns in decision making allowed them to contribute to problem solving when issues arose. Because interns were accountable to both the MCNHR supervisor and to their mentors, ongoing communication and monitoring of individual interns’ workloads was a potential area for conflict. Regular and as-needed meetings between interns, faculty mentors, and the MCNHR supervisor should be encouraged and sustained throughout the summer.
Given that research-project needs do not necessarily coincide with the summer months, workloads were often uneven. Some projects started slowly, and some were delayed while waiting for research ethics and access approvals. These projects then became busy toward the end of the summer, causing stress and tension among faculty mentors and interns. The interns were also assigned other MCNHR tasks, such as the development of a poster presentation and end-of-summer reports, which added to their workload and affected their ability to take on new tasks toward the end of the summer. Advance planning of projects by mentors before interns begin their employment would help to distribute the workload more evenly over the summer months.
Although our findings are based on a summer program, the lessons we learned are transferable to creating a hands-on learning opportunity within undergraduate nursing education programs, such as the undergraduate research methods course or research practicum. To do this successfully, careful planning is needed. It is important that approval from research ethics boards and research access be secured before students start. We found that students do not necessarily have to be involved in all phases of research project from conceptualization to data collection, analysis, and dissemination for them to be meaningfully involved and engaged, so it is possible to match students to both new projects or projects that are underway. However, it is necessary that students are taught about the research process and that they understand the relevance of what they are being asked to do so their involvement is meaningful. Students need to be given training to support them in the research activities in which they are involved, and these activities must to be connected to the bigger research project. Finally, we found that although it was beneficial for students to be embedded in a project, their short-term commitment of 17 weeks meant that the needs of the project they were involved in were often focused on a particular phase of the research process, often either data collection or analysis but seldom both. We were able to offset this pitfall by giving students the opportunity to participate in a variety of research experiences through the provision of MCNHR research support services to faculty. For example, one student, who was involved in a project that focused primarily in qualitative data coding and analysis, was given the opportunity to develop a research poster for a different research project and was exposed to quantitative data management and analysis through another project.
With generally positive evaluations and strategies for overcoming initial problems, the program is continuing and expanding. As the training program develops and faculty researchers continue to bring research funds to the program, more students will have the opportunity to participate in a wider range of projects. The possibility of including students in clinical quality assurance projects is currently part of discussions for future expansion. Ongoing evaluations are being used to inform the development of a research practicum as part of the nursing curriculum. We are also exploring ways of facilitating more hands-on research experiences as part of the research methods course. All these initiatives are being investigated so more students may benefit from a research internship.
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- Reutter, L., Paul, P., Sales, A., Jerke, H., Lee, A., McColl, M. & Visram, A. (2010). Incorporating a research apprenticeship model in a Canadian nursing honors program. Nurse Education Today, 30, 562–567. doi:10.1016/j.nedt.2009.12.001 [CrossRef]
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