I have mentored 31 undergraduates during my graduate work. I found that the most effective thing I could do when first meeting an undergraduate was to discuss why our research was important. I would then explain what their individual project was. Starting with the big picture or “why” promotes critical thinking and student engagement with their project. For daily lab work, I would take the time to make sure the student understood why we were doing that experiment.
A Ted talk from Simon Sinek, helped me to understand the significance of why.
Below is the link to his youtube talk. He argues that answering the why promotes critical thinking. He also argues that companies that start with the why in advertisements were more successful in selling their products because it engages people at a deeper level then just advertising the product they were selling. These ideas are transferable to research. Students work harder when they truly understand why they are working on a certain project; compared to when they think it is ‘busy work’. Communication is key between a graduate mentor and undergraduate student. The true way to engage students is to engage their curiosity and that is done by answering why.