How do you involve undergrads in research?

If you work at a small university, you have likely noticed the big push over the past decade to get undergraduates, particularly STEM majors, involved in and having ownership of research projects. If you are really fortunate, you have have encountered a driven, passionate undergrad who is comfortable and confident and has the time and dedication to seriously undertake research. If you're lucky, you have projects where a student can work for an hour or so every third day and still accomplish something meaningful over s year's time. I think most of us, however, have students who have better things to do and assays that take hours if not days to set up and perform.

I deal a lot with cell culture, and other than teaching students how to grow and maintain cell lines and use sterile technique, I find it very challenging to have them actually do anything meaningful. This is even more true as my research time is limited with a heavy teaching load. I want to publish sometime this decade, so I need to make my time count. I feel bad because a lot of the lab experience has been "watch me do this" when I really want to let the students work. Unfortunately, my students are not very good at working independently or troubleshooting any issues that arise and I lack the time/patience to hold their hands as they slog through routine/basic skills. While I would like to (and have tried to) given ownership of a project to students, if I'm not watching over their shoulder, it doesn't get done. And if I have to be there, I might as well do it myself to make sure I get usable data.

Any suggestions on methods of involving students at substantive levels? I would love to see a student really in charge of even a small project. How have you dealt with schedule conflicts, limited time, and lab neophytes?

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