Discussion of the many issues that arise in providing undergraduates with course-based research experiences took place throughout the convocation. This final chapter of the convocation report synthesizes these discussions thematically to revisit and elaborate on the recurring issues that emerged during the meeting. Individuals are not cited by name in this chapter since many people contributed to the examination of each topic at different points in the convocation in a free-flowing discussion.
Also in this chapter is a summary of the remarks of four college students from the metropolitan Washington, DC, area. These students had all participated in undergraduate research
experiences, had listened to the presentations described above, and were invited to offer their reactions to the idea of a major expansion of course-based research.
As with the list of overarching concepts in Chapter 1, the ideas and comments presented in this chapter should not be seen as the conclusions or findings of the convocation as a whole. Instead, they provide an inventory of issues that may warrant further examination and discussion.
The four college students who provided perspectives on course-based research were Vincent Cordrey and Nathan Gaul from Northern Virginia Community College, John-Hanson Machado from George Washington University, and Jillian Pailin from Howard University. Though each expressed some concerns about course-based research, they were generally enthusiastic about its potential. They pointed out that it is a way for undergraduates to participate in research without having to seek out and be selected for an independent research experience. It also provides opportunities for interdisciplinary work that they would not have otherwise. The courses can allow for extended research experiences if students can take them for more than one semester or year. And the opportunity to interact with peer mentors is appealing, they said, since peers can act as role models and guides for overcoming both academic and social barriers. One of the students noted that STEM classes traditionally have sought to “weed out” students whom instructors deemed not capable of STEM careers, while course-based research classes sought instead to build students’ confidence and ability to collaborate with others in doing science. This difference was greatly appreciated!
One important point made by the students is that using lab fees to pay for research courses creates a significant disincentive. Many undergraduates already have great difficulty paying for college. A number of presenters had pointed out that their projects are supported at least in part by collecting modest additional laboratory or participant fees. One student emphasized that these additional lab fees can add to student financial difficulties, particularly for those with limited financial support, including many non-traditional students. Each individual fee may not seem like much, the student noted, but they add up over time, especially if multiple courses rely on fees to pay for lab or research experiences. He noted that many students can only pay these fees by taking out loans, and they must pay interest on their loans, thereby increasing the actual additional costs significantly.
Students, especially those with families or jobs outside college, also have very limited time. Students with family responsibilities or off-campus jobs need to fit courses into complicated schedules, and course-based research can be more difficult to arrange than regular classes.29 These complications may make students less eager to take such courses, even if they see potential benefits in doing so—and many do not (see below).
29 Erin Dolan (personal communication) noted that students also have commented that these kinds of experiences fit students’ schedules more easily than other kinds of research experiences, such as internships..
Many undergraduates are worried about their grade point averages, one of the students pointed out. They need to maintain high grades to achieve their academic and professional ambitions, and many students are likely to be concerned about classes that demand large amounts of work but have unpredictable outcomes. Research projects inherently have the potential to fail; indeed, a number of presenters pointed out that failure is an important and necessary component of scientific research. Fear that such an outcome could lead to a low grade in the course itself may cause some students to be wary of enrolling in a research course, especially if it is voluntary. Students aiming to achieve high grades are not used to taking risks, and they may perceive course-based research as a risky endeavor.
The students expressed a concern that course-based research will generally not be cumulative in the way that independent research is. If each offering of a course covers the same introductory material, and course-based research is not designed to span more than a semester, the experiences may be inherently limiting to students who want to progress as researchers. In that case, they may end up wasting time that they could have spent more profitably doing an independent research project, assuming that that option is available.
Because of these and other concerns, the students pointed out that acceptance of these courses has sometimes been an issue, with relatively few students enrolling in courses that feature research. A number of faculty participants confirmed this point, saying that it is often difficult to persuade students to enroll in these kinds of opportunities. In contrast, the Freshman Research Initiative at the University of Texas, Austin (Box 5-3), has a waiting list to register for these experiences (Erin Dolan, personal communication).
As noted above in the reflections of the college students at the convocation, students have limited time and resources, and it can be difficult to recruit them to research-based courses. But, as pointed out by several participants, existing models demonstrate that such courses can attract the interest of students, especially if such projects are presented in appealing ways. These programs aim to benefit students by helping them develop into engaged and knowledgeable researchers, critical thinkers, and the creators of new knowledge, a participant pointed out. Students benefit when they are informed about the value of the work they are doing, both for the research community and for their own futures. They may be able to use the experience to successfully apply for a job, transfer from a two-year to a four-year institution, gain a scholarship or summer fellowship, or apply to graduate or professional school after college. They can benefit from the experience throughout their lives because of what they have learned about how to do research, evaluate evidence, and think critically about data. However, the potential for such gains, and the associated benefits, are not always apparent to students, particularly those who are first in their family to attend college. Thus some extra effort is needed on the part of the faculty to make students aware of the value of a research experience. Students need to feel that doing course-based research matters, not just for the research projects on which they are working, but also for their own futures.
One option is to offer research-based courses as alternatives to existing required courses, a strategy used in the Freshman Research Initiative (FRI) at the University of Texas, Austin (Box
5-3). An ancillary benefit of this approach is that students enrolled in the regular course offering provide a comparison group for assessments. A powerful recruitment strategy can be to use upper class undergraduates, students who previously participated in the research class and enjoyed it, as teaching assistants in these classes, providing stipends or course credits for the teaching assistants (TAs).30 Assuming that they are not involved in grading, TAs can act as peer mentors, which can attract students to a class. Such students are also the best possible recruiters, as students may trust the judgment of their peers over other sources of advice. Several models use a regular system of hierarchical progression, with more senior students in a team taking responsibility for guiding beginning students. See for example the VIP program (Box 4-3).
Another recruiting tool is to focus research on local communities so that students can more easily make the connection between new knowledge and the benefits to individuals and the broader society. Particularly for minority students who want to return to and work in their communities, such community-focused research can reveal the possible benefits that they could realize by remaining in a STEM field. Examples include projects to maintain a community resource (see Box 5-1), to improve the campus (Box 4-1), or to tackle a local problem (Box 4-2) However, as pointed out by Bangera and others, the most effective way to reach all students, particularly those underrepresented in the STEM professions, is to require such courses as part of the curriculum (see for example Box 5-2). This strategy removes both cultural barriers and faculty bias in selecting students for participation in research. Given the reported ability of research experiences to retain underrepresented minorities in STEM fields (Bangera and Brownell, 2014) and the pressing need to diversity STEM occupations, it would seem most efficacious to offer research courses to all students.
As emphasized by James Gates in his keynote address (see Chapter 2), attrition from STEM fields is especially high during the first two years of college. For many students, an introductory course in a scientific field is also their terminal course in that field. Many students come to college with a passion to major in a STEM field, yet many of them lose that passion. Studies of why students leave these fields have revealed many reasons for their decisions (Seymour and Hewitt, 1997). But as one convocation participant observed, these reasons may have changed in recent years as the college experience has changed. Systematic and rigorous study of why students switch out of STEM fields could shed some light on their decisions, and determine whether (and how) course-based research might change these outcomes.31 As observed earlier by
30 According to Erin Dolan (personal communication), students who serve as peer mentors in the FRI at the University of Texas at Austin are paid, although FRI-like programs at other institutions (e.g., UT El Paso, University of Maryland) offer credit rather than pay for mentoring.
31 The National Science Foundation is supporting a project that is updating the Seymour and Hewitt (1997) study. Additional information about Talking About Leaving, Revisited is available at http://www.wcer.wisc.edu/projects/projects.php?project_num=956 and http://talr.wceruw.org/. For example, the study is already revealing that there appear to be gender, race, and class-based disparities in patterns of switching majors that are particular to STEM fields (Ferrare and Lee, 2014—http://talr.wceruw.org/publications.html)
Wright (see Chapter 5), a sense of belonging in the field may be key, and being part of a research group can help generate that self-image.
Admittedly, students can have bad research experiences, whether inside or outside of courses. Some convocation participants also expressed the concern that students could be used only to further a faculty member’s research interests, rather than being given a rich and full learning experience.
An important point made several times during the convocation is that course-based research should not be just for STEM majors. Non-majors can benefit as much as majors by learning the procedures of research and the associated habits of mind, as well as the content of a research field. However, one might argue that in all cases students will benefit most from participating in research or other creative activities in their major field. Both STEM and non-STEM students may be going directly into employment, and research/practice skills can be valuable for both groups. Thus the most ambitious program described at the convocation, the “Discovery-Enriched Curriculum” of the City University of Hong Kong, is designed for all students in all majors (see Chapter 6). Given the benefits of research to students, one question that must be asked, participants observed, is whether research should be seen as a right rather than a privilege for undergraduates, as was suggested in the PCAST (2012) report.
A point made by many convocation participants during the discussion sessions is that successful course-based research programs at many institutions have been characterized by strong administrative support, which has created stability and sustainability for these programs. In addition, several participants reiterated and reinforced comments from presenters that academic departments are the fundamental unit of change. Without a department’s support, course-based research is likely to fade away once an individual champion is no longer running a project. For interdisciplinary research, multiple departments need to be involved in contributing to and supporting course-based research, they observed. However, “pioneers” at a given institution can flourish if they are supported by a national project, such as SEA-PHAGES (Box 3-1), the Genomics Education Partnership (Box 3-3) or Genome Solver (Box 3-3). These national groups can provide both intellectual and pedagogical support, as well as access to well-established protocols and materials as needed.
As noted in Chapter 6 and elsewhere, administrators tend to turn over more quickly than do faculty members, which can detract from the continuity of a program or change process. Long-term support for a new program and for the evaluation of that program can help overcome the difficulties of administrative transitions. Building systems that transcend support from individual leaders is critical to the sustainability of an academic initiative, several commenters observed.
Greater communication among faculty members, administrators, and other institution officials can help build administrative support. For example, inviting the provost or members of the university’s board of trustees or regents to student poster sessions and research conferences can show these important community members the value of course-based research. Enthusiastic and knowledgeable students are always the best ambassadors for undergraduate research programs!
As emphasized during several presentations, faculty members respond to the reward system of an institution, as several participants noted during the discussion sessions. If faculty are evaluated and rewarded based on traditional teaching approaches, they will lack incentives to change. Student evaluations, while they have limitations, have a role in the assessment of faculty teaching (e.g., Berk, 2005; Calkins and Micari, 2010; McCabe and Layne, 2012), and especially in the evaluation of course-based research (e.g., Silverthorn, 2006). But students can also be resistant to change, and as noted above, may need to be convinced of the value of the research experience.
Participants noted that uniform and accepted ways to measure teaching based on multiple modes of evaluation can move instruction in positive directions. Transparency and accountability can help faculty members know where an institution stands on undergraduate research so that they can make informed decisions about how to spend their time. (See for example the program described by Ellis, Chapter 6.) In addition, greater synergy among research, education, and service to the institution could reduce the demands on faculty, and course-based research offers unique opportunities for such synergy. When combined with improved assessments of student learning (discussed later in this chapter), methods for evaluating teaching that align with current research on teaching and learning, including effectively engaging students in research, could be a powerful impetus for course-based research.
One issue that came up during the discussion sessions is the time needed for the instructors of course-based research experiences to convert data into papers, time that can be especially difficult to find if their primary responsibilities are in teaching. A research course may not be focused directly on a faculty member’s research interests; and/or the faculty member may not be provided with any of the resources required for research, or rewarded for the production of a publication that includes student work (many four-year institutions) or any publications at all (community colleges). Since communication is an essential part of the research process, schools will need to consider whether student communication of the results (at an on-campus symposium, for example) is sufficient, or whether their goal is to see the student work contribute to the scientific literature, and to plan accordingly.
Another perspective on this issue is that course-based research may make it possible for faculty members who want to engage in publishable scientific research to do so, even when they do not have ready access to a research lab or graduate students. This can extend to faculty who are not expected to nor supported for undertaking research, such as adjuncts or faculty at community colleges. For such faculty members, these courses may offer a way to extend and maintain their scholarly interests. Certain types of research, particularly research involving multiple observations, tests, and data analysis which might not be economically feasible with hired assistants, can be accomplished by working with engaged undergraduates. Properly managed, this is a win-win situation for both the researcher and for the students.
The costs of course-based research vary by program and institution. Sometimes the cost is no more than for traditional laboratory courses and, as some presenters emphasized, the cost is often less per student. In other cases, investments are needed to begin, maintain, or scale up course-based research. Use of local resources (field stations, LEED buildings) and of shared instrumentation can further hold down costs (see Chapter 4 and National Research Council, 2014b).
Several workshop participants pointed out that there are many different sources of funding available for undergraduate research. Several federal agencies have multiple programs that can be used to support curriculum innovation and undergraduate research. Institutions could use funds available from these programs for curriculum redesign, teaching support, or other costs; however, the current funding vehicles are more often designed for summer apprenticeship programs than for academic year course-based programs. A focus on innovation and entrepreneurship could attract philanthropic and private sector support. One suggestion was for an independent organization supported by government, philanthropy, and industry that could provide the resources that colleges and universities need to adopt and scale up course-based research until these programs become widespread and institutionalized.
The National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health have significant differences in the ways they fund education. For example, NIH tends to fund longer-term training projects with a primary emphasis on training graduate students and on increasing minority participation. NSF appears to concentrate on funding innovative programs that will contribute to the science education knowledge base. Many private institutions are also looking for ways to stimulate improvement in STEM education in the United States. If the leaders of those agencies came together to better align their support mechanisms with the needs of course-based research, many programs and large numbers of students could benefit.
Different types of institutions have both common and distinct strengths, issues, and cultures, convocation participants observed. As such, they can learn much from each other by sharing lessons learned, participating in discussions, and engaging in collaborations and partnerships. As a specific example, majority-serving institutions can learn much more about attracting and retaining students who are underrepresented in STEM fields by talking with minority-serving institutions, one participant pointed out. Another pointed to the potential for partnerships between small liberal arts colleges or community colleges and local universities that have more research infrastructure. Many research institutions have used the NSF mandate for broader impacts to create opportunities for local high school and college faculty and students to participate in their research programs.
Different kinds of expertise also are needed in securing support for course-based research. For example, science faculty are typically skilled at writing protocols for student laboratory exercises, but know less about the role of assessment in educational innovation. Collaborations among faculty in the natural and social/behavioral sciences or between schools or departments of education and science departments can be synergistic in preparing successful funding proposals and the resulting programs. In addition, some professional societies have expertise at writing proposals, assessing science education programs, etc. that they can share with faculty members through webinars or workshops at their national meetings.
A related issue is the collaboration necessary to do interdisciplinary course-based research, which can be different from a research project based completely within a single discipline. For example, interdisciplinary research can be particularly difficult to scale up because of the challenge of coordinating contributions from multiple departments. However, successful projects
in bioinformatics draw both on biologists and computer scientists (see Box 3-3 and Micklos report in Chapter 4). There is a similar need for communication between science education faculty members engaged in discipline-based education research (for example, NRC 2012), and other STEM faculty members. Achieving good communication can be challenging but can benefit both groups.
A major topic of discussion during the convocation was the benefits to be gained through collaboration between two-year and four-year colleges and universities. Many STEM majors start their education in two-year schools, and some students at four-year schools take some of their STEM classes at two-year schools because of lower costs and greater convenience. By working together to develop course-based research classes, these institutions could ease movement back and forth and provide a more cohesive educational experience for students. Community college instructors may be surprised and concerned when asked to do research, a participant pointed out, given their many other responsibilities and the current absence of any research support in most cases. (This participant also observed that some community colleges do not have ready access to scientific journals; partnerships with research institutions can help address this.) But if these faculty members can be shown a relatively easy way to incorporate research into their courses, their “activation energy” will be lowered and, with experience, they could realize the benefits to their students from research participation, as reported by Hewlett (Box 5-4) and Cerveny (Box 5-1). Similar comments were offered regarding opportunities for non-tenure track and adjunct faculty at four-year institutions, a rapidly growing component of the faculty workforce on many campuses.
Some colleges and universities have created offices on campus to facilitate discussions and partnerships among two-year and four-year institutions, one participant pointed out. Some funding agencies also provide grant competitions for programs focused on the transition of students from two-year to four-year schools, particularly in the STEM disciplines. Another participant pointed out that a significant student group at many community colleges is veterans, who bring with them particular skills that can be useful in research, along with particular, specialized needs.
Many faculty members, teaching assistants, and peer mentors need initial professional development and ongoing assistance to teach research-based courses, participants observed. Faculty may want to institute course-based research, but not know how to get started. In some cases, joining a “national experiment” is a solution [see case studies for SEA-PHAGES (Hatfull, Box 3-1), the Genomics Education Partnership, and Genome Solver (Rosenwald, Box 3-3)]. Alternatively, “translators” could help faculty structure and organize courses based on their own research and provide assistance; ideally the translators will have experience both with the specific discipline and with course-based research. Organizations such as the CCURI (Hewlett, Box 5-4)
and REIL-Biology32 provide such assistance. A part of an existing teaching and learning center on campus could be repurposed to provide such assistance, or a teaching laboratory facility can be structured to provide assistance [see comments by Jungck (Chapter 6) and Wessler (Box 6-2).
Faculty members also need a safe space to try new things and possibly fail, it was observed. To encourage innovation, assessment of faculty efforts would have to count the learning involved in a failed course as an asset. Instructors also have to realize that at least initially their student evaluations could go down when they switch to course-based research, especially if students perceive the course as requiring more work or if the course pushes them outside of their comfort zone (see discussion above). Engaging in course-based research requires restructuring time, incentives, rewards, and responsibilities for faculty. It also can require different roles and relationships for graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, who may be asked to help design and run research-based courses.
Professional development can help instructors recognize and offer help to students who may not be totally engaged or are otherwise having problems in a research-based course. For example, first-generation college students may not want to admit that they are having problems or to stand out in any way. Many students can suffer from the “imposter syndrome”—the feeling that they do not belong. One participant suggested that a group discussion in which everyone is asked, “What is your greatest fear?” can help reveal that students are not alone in suffering from this syndrome. But such an approach may not be effective in all situations or with all groups of students. Peer mentors also can help students build their confidence and overcome the fear of trying something that they have not done before or that requires them to assume unfamiliar responsibilities. In research, it is not just a question of memorizing material or learning to solve a certain type of problem. Students are asked to generate novel information and to do their best to ensure that their conclusions can be defended—and some undergraduates feel that it is inappropriate to ask them to take up this challenge. Participants have responsibilities to the group as a whole. Doing this first in an academic year class, supported by teammates and peer mentors, can be very helpful to students, getting them past their initial fright and leading to real growth.
Several representatives of professional societies present at the convocation noted that their organizations can provide help with faculty mentoring and have supportive resources that can be accessed. In addition, one participant pointed to the National Research Mentoring Network headquartered at Boston College and directed by David Burgess as a valuable resource.33
Two committee members (Gita Bangera and Mary Smith), both of whom are PULSE Fellows, noted the work of PULSE (Partnership for Undergraduate Life Science Education). PULSE Fellows are current or former department chairs and who are working together across the nation and across institution types to improve undergraduate biology education.34 They have
34 PULSE was established with funding from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Nation Institute for General Medical Sciences (NIH), and the National Science Foundation. Additional information is available at http://www.pulsecommunity.org/.
developed a rubric for evaluating the efficacy of departmental efforts in improving undergraduate education, which can serve as a useful guide for asking appropriate questions about the roles of undergraduate research in biology education.35
Several convocation participants pointed to the need for assessments to dig more deeply in order to understand how students benefit from course-based research. Benefits from undergraduate research generally are well established (see Chapter 1), and initial reports indicate that similar benefits can be achieved by participation in course-based research experiences (Jordan et al, 2014; Shaffer et al., 2014). New approaches to assessment could help reveal what the research experience is for the student, what it means for research to “work” in an undergraduate setting, for whom it works best, and in what contexts. Specifying the desired outcomes of course-based research, which can include the more traditional dimensions such as learning gains, increased interest in STEM, or persistence, can clarify the benefits of that research experience and the kinds of activities needed to realize those benefits. But assessment also can encompass dimensions such as critical thinking, gains in understanding the nature of science, or gains in experimental design ability. Also, assessment is generally needed to publish on innovative programs, and published data, especially if those data are from local activities, can be powerful spurs to action for faculty members, administrators, policy makers, and other stakeholders, encouraging adoption and support of course-based research. Currently available assessment tools are discussed in Chapter 3 above.
To aid in assessment, general instruments might be developed for evaluation that could be adapted to specific circumstances, one participant suggested. On-campus teaching centers could reach out to faculty members to help, or might refer education specialists in the discipline to collaborate with faculty in this work. Eventually faculty members could have a “menu of measures,” instruments, and assessments that they could use to evaluate their own courses and programs. In this way, faculty members could evaluate the outcomes of their classes and programs even if they are not experts in assessment.
It was pointed out that the results of specific assessments depend not only on the measures used, such as the questions on a survey, but on the characteristics of the students who are being measured. For example, much more research is needed to determine whether students who actively seek out or are chosen for such experiences realize different outcomes when compared to a broader group of students who are required to take such courses.
Convocation participants discussed the creation of a “matrix of success” that would define and make possible the measurement of desired outcomes. A multi-scale system operating at different levels would seem to be necessary to capture the many aspects of success sought in course-based research. For example, measures of success could include enhanced student use of
35 Additional information about the PULSE rubrics is available at http://www.pulsecommunity.org/page/vc-certification.
scientific practices, self-efficacy, and metacognition;36 the number of faculty and students involved in course-based research and their reactions to that research; the number of institutions participating in course-based research and the outcomes of that research; and even the international spread of these practices.
Course-based research will require different grading mechanisms that have not yet been well developed in many instances, one participant said. Faculty members will need the tools and support to make such a transition—for example, to grade students’ lab notebooks or progress reports on research using appropriate rubrics, rather than assessment using exams or standard lab reports, added another participant.
Several existing tools from the social sciences could be applied to assessments of course-based research (e.g., National Research Council, 2000, 2001, 2012, 2015). Ways of categorizing problem types from simple to complex and from ill-structured to well-structured could be useful in studying course-based research. Variables of interest at the level of students, courses, programs, and institutions need to be better defined to drive observations and analyses.
However, “plug and play” assessments will not be possible in many cases, several participants cautioned. Faculty members and departments will need to learn how to adapt instruments and interpret data according to their own contexts. But, as one convocation participant noted, developing valid indicators can be as difficult as designing instruction. Taking advantage of existing resources for assessment (e.g., Dirks et al, 2014) and simultaneously co-designing the course and its assessment(s) can ensure that outcomes measures align with course goals and minimize the need to create new indicators or assessment instruments.
An issue that arose several times is the longstanding “controversy” about breadth vs. depth of coverage of subject matter. Some participants asked whether providing opportunities for students to learn fundamental concepts in depth through research experiences will result in less breadth of coverage in the curriculum; other participants acknowledged this as a pressure that many faculty continue to face, especially those who are involved with introductory courses, where breadth is often viewed as paramount. However, as noted in Chapter 1, research on human learning has emphasized the importance of the ability to both acquire and use content in novel ways, making connections between what might at first appear to be disparate concepts, and applying that knowledge in novel situations (National Research Council, 2000).
Instructional and learning time in classes and laboratories during a fixed length semester are limited commodities. Perspectives among convocation participants on the importance of breadth of coverage differed, since some educators hold that students today can more easily access knowledge that they may not have absorbed from a class than was true in the past. One
36 According to the authors of How People Learn (NRC, 2000), “metacognition” is defined as acquiring the abilities to predict one’s performances on various tasks (e.g., how well one will be able to remember various stimuli) and to monitor current levels of mastery and understanding. Metacognition can help students develop personally relevant pedagogical content knowledge, analogous to the pedagogical content knowledge available to effective teachers. Metacognition also can be defined along many other dimensions (for more perspective see papers in Hartman, 2001).
possibility, for example, is that students will use resources such as online courses or modules to fill in the gaps in their knowledge while building more depth of understanding through course-based research. Colleges and universities already offer many survey courses, one participant pointed out, but they offer fewer opportunity for transformative experiences that take learners into a given topic in depth for both content and analytical understanding.
Many basic questions remain unanswered. For example, faculty members’ and administrators’ understandings of the distinctions between course-based research, inquiry courses, or independent research experiences may differ. For these activities, student autonomy and epistemic involvement are important considerations. Each could be assessed in different ways or with different components of a more comprehensive assessment tool. As one participant pointed out, in many ways innovations in assessment are as important as innovations in course design, which opens up an area ripe for future research and subsequent implementation of new tools.
Many more models for course-based research exist than could be featured at the workshop or highlighted in the breakout sessions and posters displayed by participants.37 If information about these models could be made more readily available, faculty members at institutions would have more resources to emulate or adapt than is typically the case today. In general, said several participants, a repository for resources, best practices, and results could have widespread benefits.
Such resources are being developed. For example, CUREnet offers a website that “is a network of people and programs that are creating course-based undergraduate research experiences (CUREs) in biology as a means of helping students understand core concepts in biology, develop core scientific competencies, and become active, contributing members of the scientific community” (from the home page).38 Bio-Link, an Advanced Technological Education Center that is supported by the NSF, provides resources for identifying community college partners in Biology and Biotechnology who are doing or would be interested in undergraduate research.39
However, as one participant noted, a program has to work at the institution where it is being implemented, not just at the institution where it was originally developed. Adaptation is not a trivial process, but can be facilitated by workshops created by a central core institution (see Boxes 3-1 and 3-3). There are distinct advantages and disadvantages to national course-based research consortia vs. locally developed experiences, and which will work best in a given instance often turns on local resources and the interests of the faculty members. (For a case study of GEP members’ experiences in implementation see Lopatto et al. 2014.)
37 Posters are available at https://www.dropbox.com/sh/lhxz8fokljbwe7i/AAAiwXqUmbshQurCxzCzIehga?dl=0.
Publishing about course-based research increasingly requires that such courses be evaluated, which generally means that authors with expertise in the STEM disciplines find it advantageous to work with assessment experts (see above). Professional societies could help provide this expertise while also offering guidance on publication, one participant volunteered. Several of the scientific societies sponsor journals that regularly publish papers on course-based research and other pedagogical innovations, and many of these journals are freely available on the web.
Many innovations in classroom-based research may not become known or available because many faculty do not have the time or incentive to undertake the formal assessments and writing needed to publish them. This is likely to be particularly true for work at community colleges. A participant noted that professional societies also might help disseminate information about course-based research informally, for example through blogs and newsletters and through sessions devoted to this topic at regional and national meetings.
An issue related to dissemination involves the publication of the research accomplished by undergraduates in these courses. As noted above, faculty members may not have the time or funding to move research results from the classroom to publication. Organizing publication of papers with large numbers of student co-authors can be challenging, but several recent examples illustrate the feasibility, given modern communication networks. See Leung et al., 2015, which has 940 student co-authors, and Pope et al., 2015, which has 2,853 collaborators, mostly undergraduates. There has been some controversy around publications with large numbers of undergraduate co-authors. As with other kinds of research papers with large numbers of authors, careful documentation of student contributions, including manuscript review, critique, and approval, must be maintained by the corresponding authors who submit these papers.
Course-based research is still a young and growing movement, but it has major potential to impact STEM education. Several participants recalled Jo Handelsman’s admonition at the beginning of the convocation (see Box 2-1), that such research experiences should be available to all students and become routine in all colleges and universities, with the ultimate goal of providing every student with such an experience during the first year of college. Several parallels can be drawn between the mediators of student learning described earlier (Sadler, Chapter 3) and the parameters of successful undergraduate research programs. While a campus program can start with just one or two courses, ultimately one would like to have a “smorgasbord” of courses available so that a student can select a project in which they have personal interest (see UT Austin case study, Box 5-3). Well-developed courses have explicit instructional supports—a defined goal, starting protocols that all students in the course learn—but are structured so that each student has individual responsibilities and must make reasoned decisions on the progression of their research. Collaboration within the lab provides peer support, increasing students’ comfort level; mentoring can come both from peers and from faculty. What is commonly missing is time for reflection. A concern is that most course-based research experiences are designed to be only one semester or quarter, while it is clear that the duration of the research experience is important (see Chapter 3; Sadler, Linn). Thus, achieving maximal benefit will require many courses to change, across the department and across the institution, as pointed out by Bangera.
Several forces are converging that could help make this goal a reality, participants pointed out. The Next Generation Science Standards at the K-12 level represent the culmination of decades of reform in science education, which potentially will generate cohorts of high school graduates who are much better prepared and eager to do research in college. New findings from discipline based education research are showing how best to structure research-based courses to help students realize desired outcomes (National Research Council, 2012; Corwin et al., 2014; Brownell and Kloser, 2015; Corwin et al., 2015). Colleges and universities are under intense pressure to change traditional practices to meet the needs of the workplace and society. Some students are now completing their entire degrees online, and both Shaffer and Linn pointed to online mentoring systems and virtual internships as possible mechanisms for reaching more students (Chapter 3). However, as emphasized by Ellis, who has ushered in a “Discovery Enriched Curriculum” at the City University of Hong Kong, research experiences are one area where in-person interactions are most important (Chapter 6). “Higher education is at a tipping point,” said Ellis; “Knowledge is on the web, but the next knowledge is not yet on the web.”
Consideration of a major expansion in course-based research led to a discussion of the kinds of skills that students need to take advantage of such experiences. Given the growing importance of big data sets in science, skills in statistics can be important in research. Some speakers pointed to computer science as a fundamental skill for students, though they added that computer science departments do not always offer the kinds of courses students need. In those cases, computer science needs to be built into STEM departmental offerings to enable students to learn fundamental computing concepts in the context of their discipline.
A related point involves the need to align course-based research with independent undergraduate research experiences. Emphasis on the former can help the latter to thrive, one participant said. In some schools (such as UCLA and UT-Austin), a course-based research experience has become almost a prerequisite for entry into an individually mentored research experience. Ironically, funding mechanisms are much better established for summer research experiences than for research courses; some realignment may be needed to get optimal returns from the funding available (see Chapter 6, Byrd).
In closing remarks Susan Wessler, one of the leaders in implementing research-based courses as Distinguished Professor of Genetics at the University of California, Riverside, a member of the National Academy of Sciences, and a member of the convocation organizing committee, provided a fitting overview of the broader issues raised by the convocation. Course-based research is a way to show legislators and other funders that the tasks of research and education are intertwined and can produce benefits simultaneously, she said. “Trillions of dollars of our gross national product comes from scientific discovery, and our congressmen and senators realize this.” Course-based research also does not have to be expensive,” she continued. “Many of these [needed] dollars exist in universities. We just need to be creative about it.” As described by Gates in the opening session of the convocation, the nation’s future prosperity depends on doing a better job in educating all students; emerging evidence suggests that course-based research may be one way to generate deeper student learning, but more evidence is still needed (see in particular Chapter 3).
Finally, Wessler pointed out that all faculty, regardless of rank or institution type, have many reasons to join in this work. The students in their universities “are our future,” she said. “We are importing scientific talent into this country. . . . It’s a real opportunity to talk to your colleagues, to talk to the assistant professors, and to talk to your deans and department heads. . . . There’s huge potential here.”
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