Purdue interdisciplinary research team to build ethical data management competencies in undergraduate researchers

Author: Jeanine Shannon
Vertically Integrated Projects (VIP) classroom
Purdue Associate Professor Wei Zakharov instructs VIP Undergraduate Researchers Annapoorna Prabhu (front left) and Ruth Sugiarto (front right). Graduate Mentor Zichen Miao sits (back left).
The rise of artificial intelligence, growing quantities and variety of data, and increased demand for access to research data has sparked a collaboration among ENE's Senay Purzer, information specialists, and ethics experts to shape data management competencies for its “next-generation researchers."


The rise of artificial intelligence, growing quantities and variety of data, and increased demand for access to research data has sparked a collaboration among Purdue University information specialists, engineering educators, and ethics experts to shape data management competencies for its “next-generation researchers.”

A team comprised of faculty from Purdue Libraries, the School of Engineering Education (ENE), and the Elmore Family School of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) was awarded $542,660 from the National Science Foundation to build data lifecycle ethical management (DLEM) competencies in undergraduate student researchers, with emphasis on the ethical handling of data.

DLEM is a theory-informed and policy-driven approach to managing the flow of an information system's data throughout its lifecycle: from creation to quality assurance to storage/preservation to reuse. In the last 20 years, university researchers have been increasingly required by funders to create data management plans to increase public access to their research-generated articles and data.

“Scientific discovery can only be slowed by the growing gap between the creation of and the sharing and reuse of research data,” said project’s Principal Investigator (PI) Wei Zakharov, Ph.D., an associate professor and engineering information specialist in Purdue Libraries and the School of Information Studies who guides researchers in developing their data management plans. “We want to make sure Purdue’s next-generation researchers are able to produce research work with outcomes and data that can be easily found, shared, and reused.”

The team’s three-year project aims to 1) determine undergraduate researchers’ competencies with respect to data life cycle ethical management; 2) develop and implement open education resources and curricular modules for data life cycle ethical management to support the data competencies of the undergraduate researchers; and 3) incorporate data life cycle ethical management competencies into the day-to-day practices of undergraduate research.

“We want Purdue’s undergraduate researchers to not only have the ability to locate, organize, maintain, and share data but to do so with ethical integrity,” said Project Co-PI and Professor of Engineering Education Şenay Purzer, Ph.D. “To promote these competencies, our project team has developed a framework by integrating data life-cycle management with ethical reasoning and design reasoning. We want to support those who mentor undergraduate students (graduate students, postdocs, faculty) with resources and tools on data lifecycle ethical management.”

Undergraduate research at Purdue is conducted through several different modes, including a faculty apprentice model, a student-led project, a course-based project, or through student organizations. Additional collaborators on the project include the Office of Undergraduate Research (OUR) at Purdue, which serves as a central resource to coordinate and promote undergraduate research experiences, and the Vertically Integrated Projects (VIP) program, which provides an opportunity for undergraduates to earn academic credit while engaging in authentic and extended research and design projects. VIP has grown 381% in the past five years with 682 students enrolled on more than 50 teams this semester.

“Not only will VIP inform the work on this research project, the program’s students and their graduate and faculty mentors will benefit directly from the resources and tools to be developed,” said VIP Program Director Carla Zoltowski, a clinical associate professor of engineering practice and co-PI for the project. “Many of the VIP teams involve data and utilize AI/ML approaches to address their research and design challenges, so it becomes incredibly important for the teams to learn and implement ethical data management and design/research decision-making strategies given the real-life implications of the projects.”

VIP and OUR track more than 5,600 undergraduate research participants per academic year, which represents only a portion of undergraduate researchers within the Purdue system. Research by undergraduate students has been conducted since Purdue was founded, especially in the STEM disciplines, and OUR Director Amy Childress said the number of undergraduate researchers is competitive with the rest of the Big 10 schools. 

“The University’s 20-year drive to provide more of these valuable experiential learning opportunities in research―particularly within coursework―has increased access for undergrads and made it easier for them to engage in research,” Childress said. “We are seeing an upward trend in the number of students in our undergraduate research conferences, from approximately 400 in 2017-18 to more than 1,000 last academic year, so this project will achieve excellence at scale and have a big impact for many undergrads.”


Dr. Zakharov applied and participated in the Purdue Innovation Hub NSF IUSE-mentored Grant Writing Program. She received direct mentorship from Edward Berger, Associate Vice Provost for Learning Innovation and Director of the Innovation Hub, and Sally Bond, Director of Proposal Strategy and Development in the Office of Research.