PAGE 5 OF 5
Sarah Elgin, an HHMI professor at Washington University in St. Louis who runs the successful Genomics Education Partnership (GEP) that now includes more than 70 schools, has been refining this process for years. The GEP, which focuses on the “dot chromosome” of Drosophila, so-called because of its small size and condensed genetic material, is designed to help students work with large data sets to transform the genome’s raw data into a more polished sequence through universally accepted annotation and finishing standards.
As the program grows, Elgin has found ways to share lessons learned to help others get their courses off the ground. She has run one- to five-day workshops, for example, and has set up a website (http://gep.wustl.edu) where faculty can share curricula and details of their approach. “It’s got entries from different members about their class sizes, how the course was organized, and the hours they scheduled for the research and guiding their students in critical thinking,” she says. “It’s a place for people to look for help when they begin to think about bringing [research] into the curriculum.”
University of Georgia biochemistry professor Erin Dolan is taking an even broader approach. She is heading up a fledgling national network, called CUREnet, aimed at creating and sharing course-based undergraduate research experiences in biology. Started in 2011, the National Science Foundation–funded network is being initiated through a collaboration of about 25 programs across the nation that are already sharing best practices in teaching through course-based research.
Dolan expects to find common ground among programs. “There will be annual meetings, but we’ll also have a website and social networking functions so that people can discuss what they’ve tried in their classrooms or share software that undergraduates might find useful, for example,” she says.
Research and evaluation of these experiences are providing important data for professors to use to further develop and expand their courses. One of the most comprehensive surveys of broad-based classroom research is the Classroom Undergraduate Research Experience survey (CURE; unrelated to CUREnet). Over several years, Grinnell College psychology professor David Lopatto and colleagues have collected thousands of data points about classroom research and how it compares to more in-depth summer programs and traditional courses. Last year alone, 51 institutions participated in the CURE survey.
The surveys showed where otherwise strong programs needed work, says Lopatto. “When we first started doing surveys, one of the lowest-scoring learning gains [overall] was in learning ethical conduct in the field,” he says. “Program directors told us that they hadn’t been formally teaching ethics or the proper conduct of research and that they would start doing so.” Some individual programs found gaps in writing or discussion and changed their programs to strengthen those components.
But perhaps more important, the surveys showcased some of the powerful benefits of a research-based approach. In the self-reported surveys, students participating in classroom-based research experienced, to a somewhat lesser degree, an almost identical list of benefits as those in summer programs. From understanding the scientific process to the ability to analyze data, students in research-based courses tended to come out far ahead of their peers in traditional classes.
Opening up the scientific process to large numbers of undergraduates has shown early success. In a variety of measurable ways—from CURE survey reported skill improvements to FRI student graduation and subsequent graduate school enrollment rates—it has helped boost students’ performance while encouraging a larger percentage of students to pursue science classes and careers.
But it’s time to think even bigger. Grants have helped some schools open up a class or two to research, but that might not be enough, says Asai. “We could challenge big schools to take on [research-based courses] not just for one section, but for 40 sections,” he says. “We could bring this approach to big schools that produce lots of science teachers. There are a lot of exciting ways to think about using these courses.”
The courses don’t just shape semesters or college experiences—they can also shape careers. Holli Duhon had planned to be a doctor, but now she’ll add research to her plans. “I am on my way to completing a B.S. in medical laboratory science, and it’s my goal to incorporate research into my career,” she says. “The aptamer stream provided me with the insight to critically evaluate what my next steps should be.”