A major advantage of course-based research is that it can be scaled up to include most or all of the undergraduates in a department, college, or institution, as well as being disseminated from one institution and adapted by others. But scaling up inevitably generates challenging issues, including student acceptance, faculty buy-in, administrative recognition and support, infrastructural capacity, and funding for the latter. Four presenters in a panel on scaling up course-based research looked at these challenges and demonstrated, through examples and analysis, ways in which they can be overcome. In particular, they focused on opportunities for beginning students, the question of whether research-based courses should be optional or generally required, how to maintain mentorship in a large program, using course-based research to help freshmen adapt to active learning, and the question of scale-up in the context of college’s or university’s objectives as a whole.
“When students show up at college, some students know that research exists, some students don’t; some students know how to get into research, some students don’t: some students have confidence to apply, some students don’t; some students have the time in a semester or two to volunteer before they can get access to these experiences, some students don’t,” said Sara Brownell, assistant professor in the School of Life Sciences at Arizona State University. Faculty members also tend to be selective about the research positions available in their lab, choosing undergraduates who have high grades, prior research experiences, or plans to attend graduate school as selection criteria. When combined with the implicit biases that people tend to have toward the members of certain groups, and the natural hesitation of freshmen to take on additional new things, many undergraduates choose not to participate, or find it very difficult to become
involved in research. In some cases, a community-oriented research project can overcome this hesitation.
In general, course-based research eliminates these barriers, said Brownell. When students enroll in a course that includes research as part of the normal curriculum, they can engage in research without being selected. In this way, course-based research experiences, either in a small number of high-enrollment courses or in a larger number of lower enrollment courses, can greatly increase both access and equity in research opportunities for undergraduates (Bangera and Brownell, 2014).
As emphasized by many speakers at the convocation, course-based research has a number of benefits that can be widely distributed by scaling up this activity, said Brownell. Course-based research can increase collaboration among students, which can have a multiplier effect on the benefits they receive from the actual conduct of research. In addition, students gain experience with the procedures, data, and outcomes of research. Students may eventually be co-authors on papers generated as part of their course-based research experiences. In this respect, an even more important outcome, argued Brownell, is the increased potential for faculty members to publish papers with student input. In this way, faculty members can be rewarded for their involvement in
course-based research through traditional mechanisms, as publications improve prospects for tenure and promotion.
As an example of how course-based research can be scaled up to include large numbers of students, Brownell described the redesign of introductory biology courses at Stanford University. Today, every biology major or pre-medical student at Stanford takes two courses that feature research. In one of these courses, students use yeast as a model system to explore functional defects in the p53 protein, which is mutated in more than half of human tumors. Students are assigned a mutant version of p53 that has a single point mutation, and they work with a partner to characterize this mutant over the course of ten weeks. Students who are working on the same mutant come together in discussion groups to share their data and talk
about what they are finding, so that their individual sets of data contribute to a common pool of data that everyone uses. They talk about outliers, troubleshooting, lab procedures, and other aspects of their work. This course is now being studied, Brownell said, to determine how it affects “cooperative scientific thinking” in students (Brownell et al, 2015). The fact that all students in the major participate means that all have some experience as a basis for deciding whether they would like to pursue further research, and some knowledge of how to access further opportunities.
Scaling up has also been a major concern of the Center for Authentic Science Practice in Education (CASPiE), which has been supported through the Chemistry Division of the National Science Foundation.18 To involve much larger numbers of first- and second-year students in research, CASPiE has experimented with the idea of undergraduate research centers. Five such centers have been funded so far, said Don Wink, director of graduate studies and professor and director of undergraduate studies in chemistry at the University of Illinois, Chicago: one at his institution and four others at Ohio State University, a group of colleges in the northern plains, the University of Texas, Austin, and a group of community colleges in the Chicago area.
The overall goal of CASPiE has been to develop, implement, and evaluate a course-based model of undergraduate chemistry research for first- and second-year students. It has pursued this goal by developing laboratory experiments using discovery-based research modules, providing access to research-level instrumentation networks, and creating a community environment for research groups. Modules have been authored by researchers in the program based on their current research interests and reviewed by faculty members involved in their implementation. The experimental design has been improved through an iterative cycle, and the resulting research lab was implemented within existing programs, with support for remote instrumentation if needed.
To develop their capacity to undertake the required work while they are being introduced to the research, students participate in a three-week skill-building curriculum that covers the materials, equipment, and procedures they will be using. They do three to four weeks of research while learning what is known and not known on the problem under study from the scientific literature. They also receive suggestions for research directions, which often incorporate findings from previous courses.
Research modules that have been developed include investigations of the following topics:
- Ion sensors using surface protection/deprotection
- Antioxidants in foods
- Solid-phase organic synthesis
- Band-gap tuning of ZnOx films for solar cells
- The enzyme system in dairy products
- Lipids and fatty acids
- Biodiesel from waste fats
- Small-molecule antiviral drug discovery
- Analysis of NOx from bio-derived diesel
As Wink pointed out, these modules fit within a typical chemistry curriculum in the first two years of college.
Several of these modules have resulted in scientific publications based on work done by students. For example, a paper on biodiesel catalysis done at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago represented work that could not have been done without student involvement, which in turn becomes a major benefit for the faculty who are involved with this project (Curtis-Palmer et al., 2009). Similarly, research on on-bead reduction of carbon double and triple bonds resulted in
Wink described several challenges in scaling up this approach. The first involves creating a sense of collaboration among undergraduate students, graduate students, and faculty members. CASPiE has used peer-led team learning (PLTL, e.g., Gosser et al., 2001) to introduce students to keeping good laboratory records, reading the literature, research ethics, interpreting data, and making presentations. The peer leader facilitates two three-student teams simultaneously, moving back and forth and sometimes bringing the groups together. Peer leaders are not involved in grading, but can help guide the research. They have not always been familiar with the research topic, which has created challenges, said Wink, but they have provided the sense of having an expert nearby with whom to consult.
The CASPiE model has required one-on-one guidance to help faculty turn their ongoing research projects into researchable modules for the classroom. In addition, faculty members and teaching assistants have needed professional development sessions to help them understand the different roles they are expected to play with students. Their role in the grading process has also shifted, because they are now looking for different kinds of evidence of learning and providing different kinds of feedback. “There is a human element that is important and time consuming,” said Wink. “It has to be paid attention to, because you won’t succeed at implementing these [research modules] without all of those people being on the same page.”
Another challenge has been generating enough data for publications. If first- or second-year students do research three hours a week over the course of eight weeks, they will put in 24 hours. But a third- or fourth-year student doing research might devote 320 hours to a summer project or 150 hours to a 30-week academic year project. By the time a first- or second-year student is up to speed and doing experiments, it can seem as if the semester is almost over. However, the many students involved can increase the amount of data generated.
A third challenge involves scale-up in the larger community. CASPiE has been scaled up through partnerships with two-year colleges, predominantly undergraduate institutions, research universities, and international institutions; it has now been implemented at 19 institutions and has involved more than 6,000 students. The research modules have been used for projects for high school science fairs, for professional development for high school teachers, and as an introduction to university science for promising high school students. The organizational strategy has also has been extended to other disciplines, such as the atmospheric sciences and biology. Each of these extensions of the program involves training K-12 and undergraduate faculty members, providing equipment, and managing the new program.
As Wink pointed out in response to a question, CASPiE was designed to be adaptable, which is one reason why so many other institutions have adopted the model. “It was the simplicity of the idea followed by the depth of the development work we did that made people say, ‘Oh, that’s what I should do.’” The resulting program may look different from the original, but the model is the same.
Finally, just as the program needs to be scaled up to have
a widespread effect, it needs to be scaled down when a research project is over. A hallmark of research is that it comes to an end as questions are answered and the research heads in new directions as new hypotheses are developed, said Wink. Three of the original modules have ended as sources of original research results. The ZnOx and biodiesel modules are now available as traditional inquiry laboratories. The solid-phase synthesis and acid-catalyzed biodiesel synthesis projects ended after results were published. Thus a sustainable model requires constant generation of new research problems.
The Nature of Life project19 is essentially a course-based research experience in the College of Biological Sciences at the University of Minnesota, said Robin Wright, professor of genetics, cell biology, and development at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. It is a required, two-year, two-credit course that starts in the summer before the students’ first year at the university. Because it is required, it supports equity of opportunity for all incoming first-year students. An analogous Nature of Science and Research course is available for transfer students. Together, the courses and their associated follow-on research experiences demonstrate how large numbers of students at an institution can be involved in these kinds of discovery-based activities. (For another approach to introducing students to research early in the academic careers, see the description of the Freshman Research Initiative in Box 5-3.)
For first-year students, the course begins at the Itasca field station near the headwaters of the Mississippi River. A course fee covers transportation, room and board, and supplies, while tuition fees cover staff time and small honoraria for participating faculty members, which makes the course sustainable. At the field station, students work through active learning modules, interact with peer mentors, learn university traditions, and engage in research. Goals of the course include developing students’ identity as scientists, building a peer and student-faculty community, and learning about opportunities in the College of Biological Sciences and elsewhere in the university. “Before they even walk onto campus, we’re talking to them as if they are emerging professional biologists, and we treat them as colleagues,” said Wright.
During their first year, students work collectively on a project called Biology Saves the World. They also develop time management skills and graduation plans, meet with professors during office hours, and choose a major. During their second year, they take workshops on such subjects as career plans and work in “engagement labs”—small group research projects. Academic advisers are involved throughout the two years, and peer mentoring is critical, Wright said. In particular, putting at-risk students into
19 Additional information is available at https://www.cbs.umn.edu/explore/departments/btl/academics/nolseries.
leadership positions is extremely useful, she added. “We’re trying to create a fabric in which every student is embedded, and if there’s anything bad that happens or anything good that happens, people will know.”
The required Nature of Life program unexpectedly has become a powerful recruiting tool for the College of Biological Sciences. “It has turned into a signature program for our college that sets us apart from any other place that [students] could be thinking about.” In 2003 the college had 1,326 applicants and matriculated 350. In 2014, the college had 8,100 applicants and matriculated 550 students. First-year retention in the college has increased from 90 percent to 98 percent. Over the same period, the four-year graduation rate for the students who have participated has gone from 50 percent to 75 percent. These outcomes are thought to derive in part
from the positive impact of the program features, but also to reflect increased recruitment of interested students.
Faculty participation also has increased dramatically over time. Faculty can bring their children to the field station, which enables new students to see them as more than professors. “[Getting] faculty buy-in has been easy,” said Wright.
This program for the first two years is a lead-up to the college’s year-long Foundations of Biology discovery research experience. Research projects take place in eight-student teams. The projects are under the direction of a team leader, a research mentor, and a faculty research
sponsor, and research topics range widely across the biological sciences (Figure 5-1). In this way, said Wright, biological sciences majors start confident and end confident. She also said that surveys have revealed just one predictor of students leaving the college: not feeling that they are valuable members of the college. For students identified to be at risk, the college provides extra supports. The student experiences change the relationship the students have with learning and pay dividends not only for the students but for faculty members as well.
Universities are facing a variety of economic pressures that inevitably influence the resources available to undertake and scale up new initiatives, including course-based research, observed George Langford, Distinguished Professor of Neuroscience and Professor of Biology and former Dean of Arts and Sciences at Syracuse University. At the top of the list of concerns is the affordability of college for students. Average tuitions have been increasing faster than the rate of inflation, which has exerted pressures on universities to cut costs or find other sources of revenue. At private universities, the average annual total for tuition, fees, and room and board now exceeds $42,000, and the average in-state total for public universities is approaching $20,000 per year. “There’s real sticker shock when you see these numbers,” said Langford.
Yet tuition represents the primary source of income at many colleges and universities, and it is virtually the only source of income at institutions that lack large endowments or other sources of support. Furthermore, the average annual percentage increase in inflation-adjusted published tuition and fees for colleges has been falling in recent decades—from 4.0 percent in the decade centered on 1990 to 2.2 percent in the decade centered on 2010 for private nonprofit four-year
colleges, from 4.4 percent to 3.5 percent over the same time period for public four-year colleges, and from 4.6 percent to 2.5 percent for public two-year colleges. This annual increase in tuition is less than the increase in the cost of higher education today, said Langford. “Universities are having to operate with an income that is less than what it actually costs to run the institution, and that’s true for both state and for private institutions.”
In addition, the net revenues to colleges and universities from tuition and fees have grown much less than the published amounts because of the increasing levels of financial aid that institutions are making available to students, with a substantial decline in net revenues following the recession that started in 2008. “This has put a lot of pressure on institutions to figure out how to continue to run their educational programs,” Langford said.
Meanwhile, enrollments have increased at all types of institutions since 1995, with slight declines only at two-year public colleges and for-profit colleges following the recession. Furthermore, colleges are becoming increasingly diverse, with more underrepresented minorities and international students enrolling. The increases in enrollments, as well as increasing interest among all groups in taking STEM courses are putting strains on these courses in a number of disciplines, said Langford.
At the same time, the number of tenure track faculty positions has been stagnant or has slightly declined. The percentage of full-time faculty with tenure at institutions with a tenure system fell from 56 percent in 1993-94 to 49 percent in 2011-12 when averaged for all institutions (Figure 5-2). This reflects the fact that institutions have relied more heavily on non-tenure-track and part-time or adjunct instructors to increase instructional capacity. Governing boards and legislators also have been asking institutions to look for efficiencies by using a variety of mechanisms such as online learning activities or virtual labs, or by sharing prominent faculty members across campuses through electronic means.
Course-based research experiences entail start-up, operating, and scale-up costs, Langford observed. One-time costs include things like space renovation, equipment, faculty release time to design the new courses, and faculty professional development to assist in the process. Ongoing costs include supplies and personnel, whether instructors, staff, or teaching assistants. The cost of course-based research experiences compared with a standard laboratory course is difficult to determine, Langford said. Per student, they tend to cost less than internship-style undergraduate research experiences in the laboratories of individual faculty members. Also, the added benefits of higher persistence and improved student outcomes may offset any additional costs, he said.
A key question for course-based research is whether it can be started and scaled-up without adding to the costs of a college education at the current level. The convocation has provided many examples of cost-effective research-based courses, Langford observed. Also, other options for funding may be possible. Some costs may be appropriately allocated from the research grants supporting faculty members’ research programs. Funding agencies may be
willing to support student research projects. Institutions could rely more on philanthropy and use their development offices to direct more funding to these kinds of programs. Corporations also could play a larger role in funding these activities though such mechanisms as outsourced open innovation funding for research and development.
Another potential source of support can come from the generation of additional cost savings as a result of course-based research projects. For example, McDonald stressed during her presentation (summarized in Chapter 3) that the “Campus as a Living Lab” initiative began when budgets for support of higher education were shrinking rapidly in that state. The projects that McDonald described in her presentation have generated results that save the campus physical plant money.
Similarly, Cathy Middlecamp, University of Wisconsin, Madison, noted that her interactions with the physical plant and dining services on her campus are also resulting in lowered costs based on outcomes such as reduced food wastage. The university, in turn, has agreed to devote part of those savings to supporting and expanding these course-based research initiatives.
Thus, while costs are involved, particularly during ramp-up, creative solutions are possible, not only using conventional revenue streams but also by recognizing the value of the research accomplished. If this results in more effective accomplishment of an institution’s overarching goals such as recruitment, retention, and graduation, undergraduate course-based research can be very cost-effective, Middlecamp noted.
During the discussion period, the panelists turned their attention in part to the advantages and disadvantages of requiring research-based courses, as opposed to offering them as optional classes. Sarah Elgin pointed to research results suggesting that research-based courses have greater impact on students when they are optional rather than required (Brownell et al., 2013). In response, Brownell observed that this research relied on students’ self-reports and that students who choose to do course-based research are likely to be more motivated on average than a more broadly based sample of students. Required courses also can have a widespread impact, but self-reports may not be the best measure of that impact. Brownell also noted that essentially everyone who wants to have an independent research experience [in their “apprentice-style” program] at Stanford can do so. About 80 percent of the undergraduates take advantage of this opportunity. Thus, the only lab courses offered by the Department of Biology are the two required introductory labs, in which students are introduced to research; upper-level students have many opportunities to work directly in research labs.
The issue also hinges on the expectations an institution holds for faculty members, several panel members said. Faculty members oriented more toward teaching (including faculty members at two-year colleges) may not have incentives to publish the research they do with their students. However, research-based courses that are straightforward to implement can spark the interest of faculty members and other instructors in doing more research. Community colleges also tend to have closer ties to nearby companies than do most other colleges, and these connections can lead to opportunities for research.