Starting Strong – Involving Undergraduates in Specimen-Based Research Through a Course-Based Undergraduate Research Experience (CURE)

If you have not spent time in an undergraduate biology classroom in a decade or two, you might be surprised how much has changed! More and more, the classic “sage on the stage” model of long lectures given by the expert professor to a silent audience of listening students is being replaced by use of active teaching and learning techniques, including the implementation of course-based undergraduate research experiences (CUREs). Not only do CUREs help students practice important scientific skills (like hypothesis development and analysis of data), but they also give undergraduates the opportunity to contribute to meaningful research even very early in their college career.

One way that students can contribute to integrative organismal research is by collecting phenotypic data that can be used to address a broad range of questions across the fields of evolution and ecology. By establishing a CURE, Price et al. successfully trained diverse groups of undergraduates at two institutions to collect high-quality 3- and 2D data from specimens of thousands of teleost fish species, relying on student enthusiasm and availability to choose participants rather than GPA or test scores. Each student selected participated in four key parts of the scientific process: data collection training, developing a hypothesis, analytical methods, and interpretation/evaluation/presentation. This sequence allowed students to gain background knowledge and develop ownership in the project, continually emphasizing that mentors were present to guide and train, but not to direct, helping foster independence among the budding scientists. 

Training students to collect data involved short lectures and demonstrations followed by measurement practice sessions – most students did not have previous experience measuring phenotypic traits or working with museum specimens. The training ended with several days of mock data collection where students practiced collecting data from as many different fishes as possible because the same structure can vary greatly in phenotype across taxa. As they began to consider how scientists find inspiration for questions and develop their hypotheses, students also developed skill in finding and using scientific literature through a series of short lectures, discussions, and activities both in and outside of class. Although initially reluctant to investigate seemingly simple hypotheses, after group critique of hypotheses submitted anonymously (to reduce bias) and guidance from mentors, ultimately students selected hypotheses that could effectively be tested within the context of the class.

Because most of the students did not have prior experience with programing in R and teaching a full statistics course did not fit within the parameters of the CURE; instead, the authors chose to focus on basic programming, and data visualization (including phylogenies), and interpretation of analysis done by students and/or mentors (do the findings support or contradict predictions?). Students also presented their research at local student conferences, either as a talk or a poster, which encouraged students to take ownership of the research (a high impact practice!) and synthesize what they learned. Some of the undergraduate participants were also able to apply their skills and participate in the summer data collection at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History (this was a separate “paid internship” outside the CURE).

The CURE mentors used two main methods to assess student experience: a multiple-choice survey that asked students to assess their research skills and opinions about science using terms ranging from “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree” as well as a series of longer response questions. In general, students reported increases in their research skills, understanding of the process of science, and ability to use critical thinking and problem-solving. They also expressed an interest in additional training in R and scientific writing. After participating in this CURE, many of the students stated that they were more likely to apply to a masters/PhD program and/or pursue a career in science, which is a first crucial step in attracting and retaining diverse scientists. 

This work demonstrates how CUREs have lasting benefits for both students and scientists and showcases one high impact teaching practice that can help attract and retain diverse students in STEM. Instead of taking a final exam (a very traditional way to demonstrate mastery of a subject), students practiced their scientific communication skills to present their research in the form of talks and posters, telling their own scientific story. Students also contributed meaningful data collection and new knowledge to benefit the broader scientific community.

Katie Dobkowski is a marine biologist and seaweed enthusiast. She is currently a visiting assistant professor of marine ecology at Bates College in Lewiston, ME. Her website is kdobkowski.com

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s