Students who participate in scientific research as undergraduates report gaining many benefits from the experience. They rate their time doing research highly and are more likely to continue studying science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) (Eagen et al., 2013). They say that participating in research broadened their academic and professional networks, taught them how to think like a scientist, and boosted their enthusiasm for research (Laursen et al., 2010; Lopatto, 2010). Especially for women and for minorities underrepresented in STEM fields, involvement in research can make the difference between students with declared interests in STEM remaining in these disciplines versus pursuing alternative education and career goals (Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy, 2011).
However, undergraduate research done independently under a faculty member’s guidance or as part of an internship (the “apprenticeship” model), regardless of its individual benefits, is inherently limited in its overall impact. Faculty members and sponsoring companies have limited time and funding to support undergraduate researchers. Most institutions have available (or have allocated) only enough human and financial resources to involve a small fraction of their undergraduates in such experiences (e.g., PCAST, 2012). Students who seek out such positions are generally those already interested in research, who have high grade point averages, or who may have interacted previously with a faculty member. Thus, competition for a limited number of slots excludes many students, including students with less than stellar academic transcripts and those unfamiliar with the recruiting process, who nonetheless may be highly qualified. All of these factors constrain participation, particularly by members of groups historically underrepresented in STEM fields, many of whom could benefit considerably from being involved in research (e.g., National Research Council 2007, 2011, Locks and Gregerman, 2008; see also description of SEA-PHAGES in Box 3-1).
In recent years, an alternative approach has gained increasing attention (Corwin et al., 2014, 2015). Many more students can be involved as undergraduate researchers if they do scientific research either collectively or individually as part of a regularly scheduled course. Course-based research experiences have been shown to provide students with many of the same benefits acquired from a mentored summer research experience, assuming that sufficient class time is invested (Shaffer et al., 2014). But research-based courses have several additional potential advantages. By exposing more students to research, they can encourage some students to pursue careers that they otherwise might not have considered. Course-based approaches can involve many more students from groups underrepresented in research, including minority, low-income, and first-generation college students (Bangera and Brownell, 2014). This strategy also potentially
can generate major benefits for faculty. It can provide faculty members with ways and means to do research that would otherwise be difficult or impossible to undertake (e.g., Pope et al., 2015, Leung et al., 2015). It has the potential to be an accessible strategy for community colleges or 4-year institutions with limited lab space and resources. It can inculcate in participating students, regardless of whether they ultimately choose STEM tracks or careers, a greater ability to use scientific ways of thinking in their professional and personal lives. Even more broadly, it has the potential to transform undergraduate education by using experiential learning to motivate students to invest in learning deeply and meaningfully.
As described throughout this report, course-based approaches to providing undergraduates with research experiences have gained increasing use in the past decade, particularly following the release of the report on improving undergraduate STEM education from the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST, 2012). The present effort explored one aspect of Recommendation #2 in the PCAST report (Box 1-1) as well as numerous efforts to improve STEM instruction at the college level through the utilization of active learning strategies (e.g., Handelsman et al, 2005; American Association for the Advancement of Science 2011, 2015; Freeman et al., 2014, National Research Council, 2015). The PCAST report calls for converting regularly scheduled lab courses to a research focus, but does not develop that idea in detail. By bringing together a number of current examples, this convocation attempted to extend the discussion of this general strategy.
While such efforts have been undertaken at many colleges and universities across the nation, the majority of undergraduate STEM students are still enrolled in more traditional courses with standard laboratories. The slow pace of acceptance and implantation of the research format could be due to a lack of familiarity with the approach, or the result of skepticism on the part of some faculty and administrators as to the effectiveness of this strategy compared with more traditional course offerings. Some may incorrectly view this shift as emphasizing process skills at
the expense of the acquisition of content knowledge. This is a false dichotomy; students involved with research must master specific bodies of knowledge or content to successfully undertake that work. And research in human learning emphasizes that expertise in any domain is built on a combination of content knowledge along with the ability to use and connect that knowledge in ways that novices in that domain cannot (e.g., National Research Council, 2000).
Will the benefits justify the investment in personnel, equipment, and physical infrastructure required to maintain such efforts? How should faculty efforts in this teaching format be recognized and rewarded compared with more traditional approaches? What other administrative changes (e.g., in course scheduling) would be needed?
To explore the potential benefits and challenges of more widely adopting course-based research for all undergraduates, the Board on Life Sciences (BLS) and the Board on Science Education (BOSE) of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine held a convocation in Washington, DC, on May 11-13, 2015, entitled “Integrating Discovery-Based Research into the Undergraduate Curriculum.” Box 1-2 provides the approved Statement of Task that guided the committee in organizing the convocation.
When this project was originally conceived, the plan was to focus on the life sciences, since members of this discipline have been very active in developing course-based research experiences. However, in discussions with the sponsors and others, the committee and staff were convinced that the purview of the convocation should be expanded to include representatives and exemplars from other STEM disciplines as well as including representation from the diverse types of institutions that constitute higher education in the United States. Thus, the final composition of the organizing committee and the exemplars selected represent this broadened purview and includes an international exemplar, in this case from the City University of Hong Kong.
Accordingly, the convocation brought together a diverse group of presenters and discussants, including faculty and administrators from institutions of higher education, funders of curriculum innovation (both private foundations and public agencies), undergraduate students from local 2- and 4-year colleges and universities, leaders of disciplinary societies, leaders of pertinent departments and agencies of the federal government, and others with additional expertise in various models of undergraduate research experiences. The group was asked to examine the evidence for potential benefits from broad utilization of course-based research, the drawbacks and challenges associated with this approach, barriers to its adoption, and ways of overcoming these barriers as warranted. Box 1-3 lists some of the questions that were given to all participants at the convocation. Since many of these issues are cross-cutting, discussion of all of them occurred throughout the convocation and thus appears in various parts of this report.
Appendix A provides the agenda for the convocation. Appendix B contains a paper commissioned by the organizing committee from David Lopatto, professor of psychology at Grinnell College. This paper offered convocation participants an overview of the evidence base supporting discovery-based approaches to undergraduate education and a perspective on ways that such approaches might be sustained and expanded based on the kinds of metrics employed to assess their effectiveness and efficacy.2Appendix C lists the attendees at the convocation, and Appendix D gives brief biographical sketches of the organizing committee members and convocation speakers.
Convocation speakers and participants were invited to display posters describing their work related to course-based undergraduate research experiences, and 18 participants exhibited a total of 21 posters.3 In addition to Lopatto’s commissioned paper, the organizing committee identified a number of seminal research papers and other resources related to undergraduate research experiences. Electronic versions of the posters, presenters’ PowerPoint files, the aforementioned additional research papers, and links to additional resources all were made available to convocation participants through the web.4
The convocation was generously supported by grants from the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, each of which had representatives at the meeting. In their brief welcoming remarks, Elizabeth Boylan from the Sloan Foundation emphasized the need for “feasibility, efficacy, and value” in course-based research, while Ryan Kelsey from the Helmsley Charitable Trust stressed the need to produce a report that “will be something that people can do something with.” And HHMI’s David Asai identified three criteria that course-based research should satisfy:
2 David Lopatto was unable to attend the convocation in person but made a video for one of the plenary sessions to provide an overview of the content of his commissioned paper. This video is available for viewing through a hyperlink at https://www.dropbox.com/s/jm4ogrdw5auy95c/LINK%20TO%20VIDEO%20BY%20DAVID%20LOPATTO%20DISCUSSING%20HIS%20COMMISSIONED%20PAPER.pdf?dl=0.
3 Posters are available for viewing at https://www.dropbox.com/sh/kvk84w1psqhbok3/AACIr5U5HYZ2igdOXCE0KKcca?dl=0.
- Students should know that they are engaged in a real scientific problem.
- Students should know that the work they are doing matters to the scientific community
- Students should know how their discoveries are contributing to the field
Thus, according to Asai, students should be working on a problem that experts in the field consider to be important and timely, and their work should contribute to advancing or refining knowledge, rather than simply repeating or “rediscovering” something that is already known.
Because the movement toward broader inclusion of undergraduates in research experiences is still in its early stages of development and scale-up, various terms have been used to describe the movement’s goal, including participation in “authentic” or “discovery-based” research. This convocation was not designed to reach consensus on terminology, as emphasized during the opening remarks by Sarah (Sally) Elgin, Viktor Hamburger Professor of Arts and Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis and chair of the organizing committee.
However, several participants observed that the type of experience being discussed implies involving students in as many phases of a research process as time permits, including the development of questions to be addressed (for which answers are currently unknown), designing a protocol to address those questions, collecting and analyzing data, reaching conclusions based on those data and defending those conclusions, participating where possible as co-authors of a peer-reviewed publication, and/or presenting their work at student symposia or professional meetings. This kind of research experience differs from more traditional teaching laboratories where the outcomes are already known or predetermined, often referred to as “cookbook” labs. It also differs from what have come to be known as “inquiry” labs, where students have freedom to design and conduct their own investigations but the results are already known, or not of particular interest to the scientific community. While course-based research often takes place within a framework established by a faculty member, who lays out the overall research goals, it also differs from technical work where students are assigned specific tasks (e.g., maintaining research colonies, collecting data points) with no responsibility for data analysis and little, if any, knowledge of the scientific questions guiding the research. Additional discussion of these issues is provided in Chapter 3.
In this report, “research-based courses” or “course-based research” are used interchangeably to describe efforts to introduce research experiences within individual courses during part or all of an entire term or semester. These labels also refer to research programs that extend beyond the timeframe of an individual course or that might involve students in undertaking service- or community-based work on or off campus. In all cases, “research-based” implies that such programs incorporate the attributes of discovery described above. (See also Figure 3 in Linn et al, 2015 for the differences between course-based experiences and apprentice-style undergraduate research experiences more generally.)
in the reports of representatives from the breakout groups that took place during the convocation, and in several open-ended discussion sessions (summarized in Chapter 7). Issues that arose during discussion sessions that relate directly to the presentations are incorporated into the summaries of the speakers’ remarks in Chapters 2-6.
Chapter 2 (Historical Context for Course-Base Research: The Need for Improved Science Education) summarizes the keynote presentation by University of Maryland professor James Gates, who placed research-based courses into a broader historical context and introduced the case for expanding the use of this approach in STEM curricula.
Chapter 3 (Promising Practices and Ongoing Challenges) examines promising practices and ongoing challenges in establishing and running research-based courses, providing an introduction to the major issues associated with the approach.
Chapter 4 (Leveraging Available Resources to Create Greater Access to Research Opportunities) presents several case studies that demonstrate how one can leverage available resources for research-based courses to engage larger numbers of students without incurring large additional costs.
Chapter 5 (Rewards and Challenges of Scaling Up) builds on this idea of cost effectiveness by examining some of the broader issues involved in scaling up course-based research to include most or all of the students in a department, college, or institution.
Chapter 6 (Institutional Strategies and Funding Structures) considers the institutional support that is necessary for research-based courses to succeed, including changes in the broader culture of institutions, including perceptions of students, faculty members, and administrators.
Finally, Chapter 7 (Observations from Convocation Participants) summarizes the broad points made during the discussion sessions of the convocation. This chapter is organized thematically, so it serves as a review of the major issues discussed during the convocation and as a guide for future discussions. This chapter also includes the reflections of four undergraduate students who were invited to attend the convocation and to provide their perspectives on the proceedings, as well as on their own experiences with research-based courses.
In a meeting and in continued discussions after the convocation, the committee that oversaw the organization of the convocation and the writing of this report identified major concepts and issues that emerged during the workshop. These major concepts and issues are listed here to provide an overview of the broad range of topics considered during the convocation by those present.
The workshop report has been prepared by the planning committee as a factual summary of what occurred at the workshop. Statements, recommendations, and opinions expressed are those of individual presenters and participants, and are not necessarily endorsed or verified by the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine; they should not be construed as reflecting any group consensus. Thus, these concepts and issues are attributable solely to those speakers and participants who raised them and their statements, especially about individual programs or initiatives, should not be seen as conclusions of the convocation as a whole nor as consensus statements of the convocation participants or the committee. A companion consensus study that is currently underway, supported by the National Science Foundation, will explore some of the issues discussed during this convocation in greater depth and will issue a report with findings, conclusions, and recommendations (see Box 1-4 for more information).
In the interim, this convocation report provides an overview of individual perspectives of relevant topics that could be valuable for those who are considering initiating or expanding course-based research experiences for undergraduate students at their school. Notes in italics indicated specific sections of the report that focus on a given issue.
- Course-based research can provide many benefits both for the students and for the faculty members who are engaged in these programs.
- Many faculty members who could use course-based research to improve student learning and advance their own research are not familiar with this approach or are not aware of the wealth of local and national models that already exist.
- Current models demonstrate that the approach is applicable across the STEM disciplines and is effective with a broad range of students, from first-year students to seniors, as well as engaging students from populations currently underrepresented in STEM fields. (See case studies)
- Well-designed course-based research projects encompass many of the “best practices” identified by pedagogical research, providing instructional support and a collaborative atmosphere but requiring students to make decisions, thereby building project ownership. Providing a schedule that allows for failure and reiteration is a critical aspect. (See Chapter 3 and case studies)
- How research is conducted within the context of undergraduate courses, and common measures and methods that should be used to assess the outcomes of course-based research, have not yet been well defined. Indeed, depending on the goals of the course, assessments of learning and efficacy will likely differ in different settings (See Chapter 3)
- A database of best practices, model programs, vetted assessment tools, and pedagogical research findings could help resolve questions concerning scaling-up of existing programs and implementing this approach in new locations. (See Chapters 3-5)
- Different kinds of institutions have different strengths that can be used to develop and implement course-based research; collaboration across institutions can build on these diverse strengths. (See Chapter 4)
- Continued investigation of the cost-effectiveness of course-based research could help make the case for the advantages of this approach. (See Chapters 4-5)
- Scaling up course-based research generates a number of challenges, including identifying research topics that can be undertaken in a course setting, shifting course design and implementation to accommodate new directions as dictated by experimental outcomes, and moving students from working primarily at the levels of observation and discovery
5 A more detailed description of this project and committee membership are available at http://sites.nationalacademies.org/DBASSE/BOSE/CurrentProjects/DBASSE_090473.
based on hypotheses formulated by others to generation and testing of their own hypotheses. (See Chapter 5)
- Students have constraints on their time, schedules, and resources, and they may be wary of course-based research if the value of this (often new) experience is not clearly communicated to them. To reach those students who might benefit most (e.g., historically underrepresented, older, first generation students and those who may be well qualified to undertake and benefit greatly from a research experience but who may not have the academic credentials to be accepted into a research program in the labs of individual faculty members), it may be necessary to make research experiences part of the required courses for the major. (See Chapters 5 and 7)
- The culture of higher education, including the expectations and reward system for faculty members, can have a major impact on the adoption of course-based research. (See Chapter 6)
- Successful course-based research at many institutions has been characterized by strong administrative support, which has created stability and sustainability for these programs. (See Chapter 6)
The committee hopes that this report of the convocation will help faculties and administrators around the world consider whether research-based courses could improve STEM education on their campuses and how, by building on the lessons already learned, this approach can help achieve the best possible outcomes for students, faculty members and institutions.
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