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Building Authentic Research Experiences

Science Education Priority

Undergraduate science education in America is at a crossroads.

To maintain U.S. leadership in science and technology, we must have a steady flow of college graduates with science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) degrees. But right now, economic projections suggest over the next decade the country will fall short—by about 1 million people.

The problem is in the pipeline. Every year, some 750,000 students begin college intending to earn a degree in a STEM field, but fewer than 40 percent—only 300,000—receive a bachelor or associate degree in one of these fields. Perhaps that’s no surprise: lecture-and-lab classes are time-consuming and frequently uninspiring. Students often drop out of classes, or change majors, before they have an opportunity to experience authentic research.

How do we reverse the trend? By engaging students with real science from day one. “Students should be doing science," says HHMI Professor Graham Hatfull. “Not just reading about what others have done.”

Introducing discovery-based research—challenging, messy, real—into early educational experiences can dramatically improve their outcomes, according to several studies. Students who participate in research earn higher grades, show more interest in STEM majors, take less time to earn degrees, and show more interest in post-graduate education (PCAST report, page 25; see “Other Resources”).

The apprentice model of discovery-based research, in which a talented student works closely with a faculty member on a research project, cannot possibly reach enough students. Therefore, a classroom approach is critical. HHMI has helped develop, test, and fine-tune hundreds of successful courses over the past decade. While the courses themselves vary widely, they have four key components that reinvent undergraduate science education.


1. Replace Conventional Labs

Recipe-like labs are the antithesis of real science. There are pre-determined answers, and outcomes are expected. Discovery-based research asks students to dig into the unknown, and to think creatively. Experiments may not go as expected, but students learn to test new approaches and ideas—and to sometimes fail—just as real scientists do.

They’ve done it: At the University of Texas at Austin, more than 600 students each year choose among “research streams” where they can do novel studies on everything from nanotechnology to biofuels.

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2. Give Students Ownership

In conventional science courses, thousands of students may conduct the same meaningless lab work. Discovery-based research gives students unique variations of research projects. Their findings are uniquely theirs and new to the world.

They’ve done it: Students at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) do “lineage tracing” on Drosophila melanogaster, an effort that is broad enough to give different projects to each student—even as the process itself remains essentially identical.

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3. Introduce Students to the Scientific Community

Typical classroom work rewards the bright, individual student. But in the real world, scientists rely on each other to learn new approaches, build on previous research, and solve problems. Projects that require novel thinking reward students who dig into published research, collaborate with other students, and reach out to scientists for help.

They’ve done it: Through HHMI’s Science Education Alliance (SEA) phage hunter program, students doing research on widespread viruses, called bacteriophages, attend an annual symposium to connect with other students and faculty doing similar research, often before the end of their sophomore year.

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4. Raise the Stakes

Students understand the difference between an assignment and work that truly matters. Courses that give students the chance to contribute to scientific knowledge build interest and enthusiasm.

They’ve done it: More than three dozen students have contributed to peer-reviewed papers through the Genomics Education Partnership, a nationwide program that analyzes the Drosophila dot chromosome.

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The Importance of Scale

For maximum impact, discovery-based research courses must be designed and implemented not just for a single section or school, but for hundreds of thousands of students at colleges nationwide. A decade’s worth of work by HHMI-supported scientists shows how this can be done.

  • Build. In 2002, University of Pittsburgh biotechnology professor Graham Hatfull saw an opportunity to include high school and undergraduate students in his bacteriophage research. Instead of taking a few top students to apprentice with him, he created a class (PHIRE) that gave all students the chance to identify undiscovered bacteriophages, analyze their genomes, and design experiments to determine the function of specific genes within these bacteria-infecting viruses.

  • Replicate. At Washington University in St. Louis, biology professor Sarah Elgin pioneered a class allowing students to do computer-based comparative genomic analysis of Drosophila dot chromosomes. The computer-based approach made it remarkably portable; today more than 70 schools participate in the expanded Genomics Education Partnership.

  • Expand. In 2011, faculty and staff at the University of California, Santa Barbara, developed a three-week module for introductory biology students to identify genes important to development and physiology in the roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans. Fifty students completed the successful pilot. In 2012, 800 students will complete the module.

These courses—along with dozens of others—are reaching thousands of students and have the potential to add 750,000 STEM graduates over the next 10 years. Reaching this goal will fill three-quarters of the gap identified by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST).

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