There are a lot of ways that undergraduates can fit into active research programs, and no, I'm not talking about all the different glassware they can wash. We tend to have at least one or two undergrad students in the lab during the academic year and many of them have contributed significantly to projects that are now being prepared for publication with them as authors.
Academic year UGs often have 3-12 hours a week they can contribute, depending on their schedule, which can be a bit of a challenge when planning experiments or tasks for them to complete. Some work their hours and go, whereas others find more of a home base in the lab - staying to do homework or study while completing their to do list. I have had tremendous success with students recruited prior to starting their junior year, but this has its own challenges that I won't get into today.
The projects that can be most helpful for the lab and the student are actually work done during the summer. Perhaps you have a site REU, fellowship mechanism or got an REU supplement to an existing grant and now you are faced with finding 400 hours or work for an inexperienced student. One of these can be daunting, but for a variety of unusual reasons, my lab ended up with four such students this summer.
With 1600 hours of time to fill for students who, for the most part are getting their first glimpse of life in the lab, it was critical that I work out a series of projects that are going to be useful but compact. Ten weeks is both a long and short period of time.
I talked to each of the people in my lab and asked them to think about projects they don't have time to deal with, but would be helpful for their work. Most of them had a couple of ideas, which we sat down to work out the feasibility of. Important questions were: 1) Is it something that can be easily taught? 2) Something that one can work on as the learn the bigger context? 3) Involve significant manual work that the lab trainee didn't have time to do, and 4) Have a defined start and end that could be met in our time frame?
The last point might be the most important for these summer projects. With academic year undergrads I often leave things open-ended and let the lab trainees guide them. For summer students it is possible (or even probable) that the ten weeks you have them are the only ten weeks they will be in the lab. I like to ensure that they have their own story to tell at the end - something they feel some ownership over. That may seem simple, but rarely is.
So today we unleash the hordes in the lab and we'll see how it all ends up in ten weeks.