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Course-based undergraduate research experience: students become scientists

Yashika Kapoor

Inquiry-based Curriculum
Inquiry-based Curriculum  (Photo: Credits: Ballen C.J. et al. URL: License: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0)

Curiosity killed the cat” is a saying that limits scientific aspirations. However, with undergraduates having first-hand research experience, curiosity is set to cure” the cat. Through Course-based Undergraduate Research Experience (CURE) teaching pedagogy — students are able to work on research problems. 

Pedagogical research suggests that engagement enhances learning experience. Thus, with an intent to make undergraduate experience, CUREs are incorporated in the curriculum. The study module allows the students to ask scientific questions, develop hypothesis and attain unknown outcomes. 

Offering distinct learning environments, CUREs allows students to make discoveries on their own. CUREs are the mini-scientist experiences propelling students towards investigative tendencies through engagement in iterative work.

CURE can assume diverse structures, wherein the research experience could take the form of bench work, fieldwork, or computer work. A variety of structures simulate the learners’ research experience as they draw meaning from experiences, an integral component of constructivism learning.

It is what stimulated a group of researchers from the University of Minneapolis to study the impact of CURE on student attitudinal outcomes. While collaborating with principal investigators, the students undertook bench-based and computer-based coursework. 

Bench-based structures comprised of experiments involving investigations of microbial physiology and experimental evolution of Pseudomonas, and environmental and developmental toxicology in Zebrafish. The three semester-long investigation also assessed students’ notions of ownership, self-reporting of personal gains, and attitudes towards the experience. Overall, CUREs facilitated positive responses from students. 

Students working in bioinformatics preferred working on digital research projects compared to traditional lab work (58%). Majority of the students working with Pseudomonas appreciated the course structure (43%) and reported higher sense of ownership (38%). Students working on Zebrafish also expressed similar interests. These results indicate student preference towards engaging environments that foster the excitement of discovery. 

Dr. Reginald Halaby, Professor of Biology and Cancer Scientist at Montclair State University, is of the view that research experiences in biology/​science courses can enhance students’ experience, satisfaction, and academic performance. Having designed online courses such as Developmental Biology and Vertebrate Embryology, Dr. Halaby notes increasing tendencies of students to take up digital and computer-based learning. However, she adds computer-based learning cannot fully substitute bench-based learning, especially for certain biology courses. Students who take online courses blended with lab components do better because this generation is comfortable with technology and are digital learners.”

CUREs address the tapestry of learner psychologies. Students with low-ACT scores reported higher interest, sense of achievement, and course satisfaction (ACT is a standardized test in the USA for college admissions) . Barbi Honeycutt, teaching and learning consultant at FLIP It Consulting, experienced in student-centred active-learning environment, suggests that these learning experiences have a direct and positive influence on student learning outcomes, success, and interest. 

The higher attitudinal outcomes of students with low-ACT scores emphasizes the issue of specific groups such as women, first-generation college students, and minorities in STEM areas. Barbi states, These groups are succeeding at higher rates than ever before when interactive, applied, and practical learning experiences are in place. We are also seeing how these type of learning environments are influencing students’ choice of majors and career.” However, Barbi recognizes that faculty requires support to implement this learning model.

In conclusion, CUREs not only help academically prudent students but also are useful to students whose abilities might suit more engaging teaching models. CUREs can cure the boredom and are prescribe students inquisitive research with a higher degree of awareness.

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