Impacts of Mentored Research Experiences in Freshman Biology

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Title of Abstract: Impacts of Mentored Research Experiences in Freshman Biology

Name of Author: Jeffrey Hill
Author Company or Institution: Idaho State University
Author Title: Associate Professor
PULSE Fellow: No
Applicable Courses: All Biological Sciences Courses
Course Levels: Across the Curriculum, Faculty Development, Introductory Course(s), Upper Division Course(s)
Approaches: Assessment, Introductory biology laboratory restructuring
Keywords: 1. Learning community 2. Mentored research alliance 3. Undergraduate research 4. Scientific learning 5. Faculty development

Name, Title, and Institution of Author(s): Carolyn F. Weber, Idaho State Unversity Koreen A. Boydstun, Idaho State University Taylor T. Goodnoe, Idaho State University Shannon Lynch, Idaho State University

Goals and intended outcomes of the project or effort, in the context of the Vision and Change report and recommendations: Early access to hands-on research experiences can foster life-long science literacy skills and help broaden participation in biology career paths (Vision and Change, pp. 28-29). The student apprenticeship model is a highly successful strategy for engaging students in life sciences, but it can be so labor intensive for mentors that it has limited carrying capacity. This project alters an undergraduate biology curriculum by shifting the focus of introductory laboratories to discovery research while mitigating the 1:1 student-mentor bottleneck that typically limits freshman access to research experiences. This project also hypothesizes that changing academic culture to provide institutional rewards to faculty who adopt scientific teaching (Vision and Change, pp. 49-50) may be insufficient to draw research-active faculty into a freshman curriculum that is devoid of discovery. The goal in this project is to attract faculty members who are excited to engage students in their own research while they accrue workload credit for undergraduate teaching.

Describe the methods and strategies that you are using: Biology research labs are often implicitly structured as tiered learning communities with a network of interactions between graduate students and PhDs. In this environment, an effective student-mentor ratio is generally no more than five. The current project adapts this model to function in freshman biology labs by developing a new community of near-peer mentors in a new program called AMOEBA (Authentic Mentoring Of Engaged Biologists Alliance). Freshmen are initially invited to become 'scientific learners' by understanding the personal gains and proven educational benefits of research experiences before engaging in research. Targeted readings, including some sections of the Vision and Change report, are used to help foster these ideas. Students also view video resources and write reflective essays to help them expand their knowledge of career paths in biology beyond health professional tracks they are familiar with. AMOEBA has allowed a restructuring of some introductory labs into new learning groups with discovery research placed at the epicenter of student-mentor interactions. New research mentoring courses have also been added to both undergraduate and graduate catalogs to institutionalize the learning community within the department’s curriculum. This populates AMOEBA with a wide range of expertise and allows advanced students opportunities to develop their own professional skills as next-generation mentors. Research topics are selected by lead mentors to help drive faculty members’ intellectual engagement in the new curriculum. Small student-mentor cohorts (4-7 individuals) conduct contemporary research in life sciences in connection with the broader alliance, culminating with an AMOEBA poster session in the department at the end of a term. Collaborative work is balanced with periodic assessments of individual performance to give students adequate control of their own course grade.

Describe the evaluation methods that you used (or intended to use) to determine whether the project or effort achieved the desired goals and outcomes: Early indication of AMOEBA’s success is based on departmental participation and scientific productivity. In the first year, 11 AMOEBA mentors (PhDs, graduate students, and advanced undergraduates) worked collaboratively with 45 introductory freshmen. Six students participated in AMOEBA in both semesters of introductory biology, providing curriculum-based research experience for their entire freshman year. A portion of students’ written work (N = 22) that was coded by a psychologist indicated a high level of student engagement in new activities intended to help them become scientific learners. AMOEBA reduced the average student-to-mentor ratio from 45:2 (i.e., one teaching assistant per lab for two semesters) to 45:11 (ca. 4 students per mentor). If AMOEBA had relied strictly on faculty mentors, the ratio would have been 45:5, or 9. Reduction of this ratio is an important ongoing project goal because it may be an important structural element shared by other successful programs like summer undergraduate research experiences cited in Vision and Change. In the second project year, greater effort will be made to involve more students in AMOEBA, verify these gains in student attitudes, and link them to gains in student learning using other vetted assessment instruments (e.g., Biology Concept Inventories). Institutional research will also track student retention rates in the major. As participation expands, individual interviews and focus group discussions conducted by an independent expert in qualitative analysis are planned to evaluate mentor attitudes towards integrating teaching and research into a more singular academic activity. During the academic year, AMOEBA produced 11 scientific posters displayed in two intramural poster sessions and at least two projects are maturing to the manuscript submission stage.

Impacts of project or effort on students, fellow faculty, department or institution. If no time to have an impact, anticipated impacts: An early measure of project impact is evident as AMOEBA’s growth and sustainability at the departmental level. Two new faculty members are developing research modules for AMOEBA in the next academic year. Another faculty member has received funding for an AMOEBA research module included in a recent NSF Dimensions of Biodiversity award. Two upper division undergraduates are returning as near-peer mentors and a third is entering graduate school in biology and will mentor AMOEBA research in her area of interest. Increasing the number of mentors will increase the number of freshman exposed to research experiences in biology. Thirteen out of 22 AMOEBA students (59%) voluntarily responded to the Classroom Undergraduate Research Experience survey in the spring term. They self-reported that their experience resulted in learning gains equal or greater than those reported for the 2012 Summer Undergraduate Research Experience national survey (N = 2714) for 15 out of 22 survey metrics. Thus, AMOEBA may be having a very positive impact on freshman attitudes towards research in biology.

Describe any unexpected challenges you encountered and your methods for dealing with them: This project is located at a comprehensive regional public institution in a rural state in difficult economic times. Faculty workloads including teaching credit hours (i.e., number of credit hours x number of students) are under increasing scrutiny to justify state funding. Early career faculty members are increasingly focused on procuring research funding. AMOEBA poses administrative challenges because there is no simple equation for calibrating innovative teaching effort when multiple faculty members simultaneously participate in the alliance. Extramural support from NSF was a key step that helped leverage program validity in its initial stages. A proactive approach will be critical to inform both faculty members and administration to lay the groundwork to sustain these curricular reforms. Educating more colleagues that discovery research can be meaningfully integrated with undergraduate teaching is a key and continuing project goal.

Describe your completed dissemination activities and your plans for continuing dissemination: First year dissemination efforts have focused on presentation of our new curriculum design and early discovery research progress involving undergraduates at professional meetings. Future discovery research outcomes will be presented at professional societal meetings and submitted for peer-review publication to help the scientific community see how research productivity can align with best practices in undergraduate teaching and learning. Summative project outcomes (student attitudes, learning gains and retention; faculty participation, attitudes towards scientific teaching and research conducted with freshman students) will be forthcoming as the project matures.

Acknowledgements: We thank Scott Lockhart, Million Hailemichael and Jason Werth for excellent technical support of AMOEBA research at Idaho State University, and Bruce Finney and Ken Aho for participation. This project is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. DUE 1140286. Any opinions, findings and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the NSF.