New proven strategies for engaging and retaining first generation and under-represented students will be incorporated into the new lab modules. The fate of participants will be tracked through graduation and beyond to ascertain whether STEM retention and career choices improved for students in the interdisciplinary labs compared with students in the traditional, non-participating labs. Because students are drawn to authentic, socially relevant science, the BRAINS program has the potential to improve STEM retention.
Students in the BRAINS laboratories will form research teams that take a holistic approach to solving regional problems. Each eight-person team will include two students from each discipline. Some teams will deal with impacts of water pollution linked to agricultural and industrial operations. For example, teams will perform chemical and biological analyses to compare the impact of pristine and potentially polluted water on plant and animal development. Other teams will deal with improving aquaculture as a step toward addressing the growing demand for protein in the human diet.
BRAINS teams will interact with senior level personnel and PIs from different disciplines to gather and analyze data and find solutions to complex problems. Teams will work together to design and conduct experiments, test hypotheses, and engineer solutions where applicable. Chemistry students will be responsible for the chemical analysis of the test sample, biology and microbiology students will study the impact of the test sample on the growth, development, and diversity of organisms, and environmental science students will contribute ecological expertise. The teams will meet regularly to plan activities, coordinate fieldwork, conduct analyses, and discuss results. The student teams will present a final project at the end of the semester.
All of the projects relate to funded research projects, some of which have developed state wide networks that link university research with high schools and communities. Hence the opportunity to expand Idaho's citizen science exists as large numbers of college undergraduates are immersed in these assignments. To participate in the existing state wide networks, the BRAINS teams will share experiences and data using web-based technology and a secure on-line database.
Studies show that learning is stimulated when students are engaged in authentic, meaningful experiences. The BRAINS students will have the opportunity to study real processes and contribute to society. The program encourages students to be innovative by inviting them to engineer solutions to real problems, exposes students to funded research programs at the university, introduces educators to active learning and intervention techniques that significantly reduce the failure rate and education gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students, involves rural communities with increasing populations of Hispanic students, and builds on the University of Idaho's tripartite land grant mission of teaching, research and outreach.