Texas Tech biology faculty members aim to create more accessible and exciting science classes for students online and in large-classroom settings.
One of the most valuable experiences a biology undergraduate can have is conducting research. Typically, though, there are few research positions available.
Making research opportunities more widely available is a primary research goal for two members of Texas Tech University's Department of Biological Sciences faculty. In turn, when students participate in conducting research, they are more likely to stay interested and involved in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics).
As the result of a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), Lisa Limeri and Matt Johnson will assess the effectiveness, accessibility and impacts of Course-based Undergraduate Research Experiences (CUREs) with an eye toward enhancing available options for student research.
“There is so much evidence about the value of conducting research as an undergrad,” Limeri said. “The President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology called for every biology student to have research experiences during their undergrad education. A major challenge is how to scale that up.”
The NSF grant totals $2 million with $280,000 targeted for Texas Tech. Other institutions involved in the project are George Washington University, Widener University in Pennsylvania and Westfield State University in Massachusetts. The institutions will work together and share data as they look to serve their own unique student populations.
“I am part of a group called the BCEENET (Biological Collections in Ecology and Evolution Network),” Johnson said. “The group was formed to use museum and herbarium specimens as part of teaching and research, and in 2020, they received a grant from the NSF to develop courses that can be taught remotely using specimen information.”
The curriculum designed by BCEENET uses images of numerous plants and other specimens in online databases (digitized natural history collections) where they can be included in research projects by students even if they are taking a science class remotely.
The BCEENET CUREs started in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic and widespread remote instruction, and has steadily grown since the fall of 2020 to now reaching over 3,000 undergraduate students at more than 20 institutions. Still, there is a focus on enhancing the virtual learning experience, especially in science where it can be difficult to simulate laboratory experiences.
“I study how we teach biology to undergrads,” Limeri said. “A lot of my post-doctoral work was about these exact research experiences.”
The challenge becomes being able to take the research experience to a larger group. Traditionally, course-based research experiences can require substantial resources and be difficult to scale up to large numbers of students or implement in places where resources are limited. Students now can take information available in large online databases and test hypotheses, make observations, and conduct authentic research without many of the costs and resource requirements typically required of a laboratory-based research experience.
“Most of the time few students get to work with a faculty member,” Limeri said. “But I teach a class with 800 students in it. It's just not possible for every one of those students to come into a faculty member's lab and have one of those experiences. That why CUREs are an exciting potential solution to this.”
As a result, students who engage in research during their undergraduate studies gain confidence in their abilities, learn about the processes of science, feel like real scientists, and are more likely to continue in the field.
“The challenge was how do we do that and extend it in a remote setting,” Johnson said. “I participated in developing some of those experiences and got more and more involved in the group. BCEENET developed four CUREs, including one that we run here for our nonmajors botany course.”
The idea isn't simply to make the experience more accessible to all students, but also to develop it to serve other schools with different needs and resources, including online instruction.
“That's one of the questions. How do you broaden it for schools with fewer resources,” Johnson said. “That's our goal, and so the fact that this project includes two smaller schools with different infrastructure than Texas Tech is important.”
Texas Tech's emphasis will focus on developing instruments to measure the impact and effectiveness of the CUREs that use digital data.
“We know CUREs are really beneficial for keeping people in science,” Limeri said. “We can assess their feelings about science before and after the class. How do they feel about being in science? Questions like that.”
The grant covers a five-year period, after which Johnson and Limeri say researchers will know a great deal more about implementing CUREs at a large scale and low resource cost and possibly keeping students connected to the field.
“You will have a neat tool for understanding what students' data science skills are and be able to measure growth that could be used broadly,” Johnson said. “In turn, that can be used to convince departments and administrators to encourage the use of the courses. Education research is a relatively new field, at least it is in biology, and you want to be able to have evidence you can point to and say we can improve our courses.”