How Practicing Authentic Research Benefits Underclassmen

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Title of Abstract: How Practicing Authentic Research Benefits Underclassmen

Name of Author: Miriam Ferzli
Author Company or Institution: NC State University
PULSE Fellow: No
Applicable Courses: All Biological Sciences Courses
Course Levels: Across the Curriculum
Approaches: Mixed Approach
Keywords: Authentic research Self-efficacy Science process skills Discourse of science Community of scientists

Name, Title, and Institution of Author(s): Mary Beth Hawkins, NC State University Elizabeth Overman, NC State University Johnavae Campbell, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill

Goals and intended outcomes of the project or effort, in the context of the Vision and Change report and recommendations: Teaching science to undergraduates through research is an accepted way to immerse students in the scientific field. BIO 2010 (NRC, 2003) states that “independent research gives students a real world view of life as a researcher” and recommends that “students should pursue independent research as early as possible in their education.” The Vision and Change final report (AAAS, 2011) states that, “All students need to understand the process of science and how biologists construct new knowledge by formulating hypotheses and then testing them against experimental and observational data about the living world.” Moreover, students report that conducting independent undergraduate research is a transformative experience that can jump-start interest in a scientific career (NRC, 2003). Although faculty and students agree on the value of independent research experiences as preparation for science careers (Chopin, 2002), there are many challenges and limitations (Katkin, 2003), including insufficient faculty time, underprepared students in both knowledge and skill, and a lack of resources including facilities, equipment, and collaborative relationships for supporting and accommodating large numbers of students (Karukstis & Elgren, 2007). In an effort to answer the call for undergraduate research and science education reform, we have increased opportunities, with funding from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), for underclassmen to engage in authentic research practice through a research track embedded in current curricula at our institution. We call this program. 'Research PackTrack (RP)' (in honor of the WolfPack at NC State). We hypothesized that students who choose the RP will exhibit increased (1) interest in science and research, (2) preparedness to participate in scientific research, and (3) self-reliance in scientific practice.

Describe the methods and strategies that you are using: The RP model scaffolds students’ engagement in authentic scientific practice as they progress through various stages of learning about scientific research throughout a two-semester sequence course: (1) a freshman-level science research methods course, and (2) a sophomore-level research lab course. Students who elect the RP may receive up to six hours of ‘major elective’ credit. The RP provides students with the time to become immersed in research, participate in the discourse of science, and become prepared to contribute to a research lab. Subsequently, students wanting to continue in undergraduate research are placed in independently-funded research labs at our institution and in neighboring private industry research facilities. The RP was piloted in 2010 by an initial student cohort that helped us to refine the experiences we now have in place. Since then, two additional cohorts have progressed through the RP and a third one has started (total n=79). Positive impacts as defined by student gains in interest of science, preparedness towards scientific research, and self-reliance in scientific practice were assessed using a mixed methods approach comparison-group study. In a pre- and post-test design, this study used the HHMI-funded Classroom Undergraduate Research Experience (CURE) survey (Denofrio et al., 2007) to collect student responses at the beginning and end of each semester to measure student gains. We also conducted focus groups and individual student interviews.

Describe the evaluation methods that you used (or intended to use) to determine whether the project or effort achieved the desired goals and outcomes: Positive impacts as defined by student gains in interest of science, preparedness towards scientific research, and self-reliance in scientific practice were assessed using a mixed methods approach comparison-group study. In a pre- and post-test design, this study used the HHMI-funded Classroom Undergraduate Research Experience (CURE) survey (Denofrio et al., 2007) to collect student responses at the beginning and end of each semester to measure student gains. We also conducted focus groups and individual student interviews.

Impacts of project or effort on students, fellow faculty, department or institution. If no time to have an impact, anticipated impacts: Findings support our hypothesis that student participation in the RP has significant positive impacts on student interest in science and research (p=0.001), preparedness to participate in scientific research (p=0.005), and self-reliance in scientific practice (p=0.001). In assessing student interest in science and research, pre- and post-test analyses indicate that student participation in RP courses significantly increases student interest in science and research overall (p=0.001). Specifically, students reported strong increases in research interest and clarification of career path. Increased interest in participating in research long-term was an emergent theme in student interviews, with several students noting their desire to consider or continue scientific research as a career. Students reported an increased understanding and appreciation for the complexity of research overall, how research is done as a service to others, and how research relies on working together. Student responses indicate increased gains in ability to analyze data, read and understand primary literature, and science writing. Further findings also demonstrate increased gains in understanding how scientists think, readiness for more demanding research, ability to integrate theory into practice, and increased tolerance for obstacles in the research process. Based on student comments, students felt prepared to give oral presentations, poster presentations, and conduct problem solving in the lab. In the area of self-reliance, students reported an increase level of confidence in their abilities to conduct scientific research and a sense of belonging to a community of scientists.

Describe any unexpected challenges you encountered and your methods for dealing with them: The biggest challenge of the program has been scalability. Since the start of the RP program, we have gradually added new study models led by other research faculty and postdoctoral fellows, who have taken a subset of students during the second semester of RP. As we continue to expand collaborations with research faculty, we will be able to increase the numbers of students who can be involved in the program. Another significant challenge has been tracking RP students after they complete the program. After attempting various models to address this issue, we are currently developing a social component to RP, including social media, that will increase peer-to-peer and student-mentor interactions amongst past and current cohorts. This aspect has begun to evolve on its own, and we see it as a promising vehicle for tracking students more effectively.

Describe your completed dissemination activities and your plans for continuing dissemination: We have been disseminating our findings at professional society meetings. As we continue to collect additional data, we plan to continue presenting at these meetings as well as publishing our findings in the appropriate journals.

Acknowledgements: We would like to thank the Howard Hughes Medical Institute for funding the Research PackTrack Program, and to the director of the program, Dr. Damian Shea for his continued support. We would also like to thank Elizabeth Dittman for her contributions in the instruction and mentoring of RP students. Literature Cited American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). (2011) Vision and Change in Undergraduate Biology Education: A Call to Action. Washington D.C.: AAAS. Chopin, S. F. (2002). Undergraduate research experiences: the translation of science education from reading to doing. The Anatomical record, 269(1), 3-10. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11891620. Denofrio, L.A., Russell, B., Lopatto, D., & Lu, Y. (2007). Linking student interests to science curricula. Science, 318, 1872-1873. Karukstis, K.K., & Elgren, T.E., (Eds.). (2007). Developing and sustaining a research-supportive curriculum: A compendium of successful practices. Washington, D.C.: Council on Undergraduate Research. Katkin, W. (2003). The Boyer Commission Report and its Impact on Undergraduate Research. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 2003(93), 19-38. Retrieved from http://doi.wiley.com/10.1002/tl.86 National Research Council (NRC). (2003). Evaluating and Improving Undergraduate Teaching in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press.