Transformative Undergraduate Research Experiences

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Title of Abstract: Transformative Undergraduate Research Experiences

Name of Author: Erin Sanders
Author Company or Institution: University of California Los Angeles
Author Title: Director of the Center for Educational Innovation in the Life Sciences (CEILS)
PULSE Fellow: No
Applicable Courses: All Biological Sciences Courses
Course Levels: Upper Division Course(s)
Approaches: Mixed Approach
Keywords: Undergraduate research, discovery-based courses, outcomes-based assessment, curriculum-development, department cultures

Name, Title, and Institution of Author(s): Jordan Moberg-Parker, University of California Los Angeles Frank Laski, University of California Los Angeles Debra Pires, University of California Los Angeles

Goals and intended outcomes of the project or effort, in the context of the Vision and Change report and recommendations: Implementation and assessment of an interdepartmental, research-based laboratory curriculum involving over 250 life sciences majors per year is underway at UCLA. The goal was to pilot the curriculum, referred to as the Competency-based Research Laboratory Curriculum (CRLC), in two departments, laying the ground work for all five life science departments to assimilate successful and cost-effective aspects of this instructional model. CRLC students take part in a 20-week research experience. Some are conducting a mentored, independent research project in a faculty laboratory, and most are immersed in courses where the process of scientific discovery and inquiry is experienced through team research projects. Different competencies, as described in the Vision & Change 2011 report (p. 14-17), are emphasized each quarter. The first gives students hands-on experience devising and conducting experiments. The second provides opportunities for data analysis (emphasizing quantitative and computational skills), oral presentations (posters and seminar-style talks) and writing papers. For the independent project series, students participate in two quarters of research and concurrently enroll in research seminars designed to help students acquire in-depth background knowledge of their research projects through primary literature investigations, discussions, and presentations as well as formally writing about their projects in various report formats. For the team-based project series, the first course in the series is called a ‘Research Immersion Lab’ and the second is called ‘Advanced Research Analysis.’ Students choose from five different options, with each course series centered on a different research project. For example, one explores phage diversity, another sea urchin development, and another plant-microbe interactions in the soil.

Describe the methods and strategies that you are using: There were several factors that informed the successful evolution of this larger scale educational initiative. The process began at the course level in which departmental support was provided for faculty development, and scientific teaching was not only encouraged but rewarded for instructors who pursued the scholarship of teaching and learning. This process involved teaching faculty establishing productive partnerships with assessment groups to collect and analyze evidence about student learning. Intramural and extramural funding played a pivotal role in the exploratory and expansion phases of these curricular innovations. Such support also enabled instructors and their collaborators to publish their findings and to disseminate assessment results and instructional materials to the national STEM education community. For example, four online technique videos and protocols were published by curriculum instructors in JoVE. Additionally, a study about how to use peer-assisted learning in courses that integrate bioinformatics was published in BAMBED this year. Documented success at the course level earns instructors the trust and respect of campus administration and faculty with the power to affect curricular change at the institutional level. This incremental, grass roots approach resulted in the conversion of all upper-division laboratory courses in two life science departments into authentic, in-depth, research-oriented experiences with learning outcomes focused on competencies, not content or techniques.

Describe the evaluation methods that you used (or intended to use) to determine whether the project or effort achieved the desired goals and outcomes: We hypothesized that students in the curriculum would realize learning gains at the highest levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy (HOCS) reflecting the core competencies described for each path. To test this hypothesis, we utilized a mixed-methods assessment approach, analyzing data from a rubric-guided evaluation of embedded course assignments as well as self-report surveys. Research presentation slides for a subset of students that completed the curriculum in 2011 were subjected to a performance evaluation by an external content expert. Based on a 3pt scale, paired sample t-tests of mean scores at two time points indicate students demonstrated significant learning gains in conceptual knowledge at HOCS levels over a 20-week time period (t1=2.50, t2=2.75; p=0.002). This data trend is exciting because it shows students are achieving the specified learning outcomes in the new curriculum. Furthermore, the results from self-report surveys support the data trends observed with the outcomes data. At least 50% of students reported learning gains in several HOCS categories, including thinking through a problem, writing reports and abstracts, analyzing scientific data, understanding how scientists think, and solving problems collaboratively. Among long term outcomes, we hoped student research experiences in the curriculum would inspire them to pursue careers in science. The majority of students reported that the new curriculum had a positive impact on their decisions to consider careers in science, underscoring the important role this experience plays in their post-baccalaureate plans.

Impacts of project or effort on students, fellow faculty, department or institution. If no time to have an impact, anticipated impacts: UCLA in preparing to initiate a campus-wide education campaign around faculty development issues, campus policy, and institutional culture related to STEM education. The goal of this campaign is to catalyze a campus-wide transformation in attitude and practice of student-centered, evidence-based teaching methods. One objective is to identify faculty, courses, and/or curricular models that represent ‘best practice’ examples. The CRLC stands out as a model for change in pedagogy and faculty development.

Describe any unexpected challenges you encountered and your methods for dealing with them: Looking forward, we are considering how the curriculum might be expanded to other life sciences departments at UCLA. Three major challenges hindering this expansion include procuring enough financial support for materials and supplies, having enough instructors to teach the courses, and changing department culture. Dissemination of this successful teaching pedagogy necessitates understanding the unique resources and distinct challenges to educational innovation within each department, with solutions tailored to individual department needs and teaching structures.

Describe your completed dissemination activities and your plans for continuing dissemination: We developed a website with descriptions of all grant-supported STEM education programs at UCLA: The assessment team presents regularly at education meetings, describing the implementation process, the evaluation plan, and impacts on student learning. CRLC faculty members continue to publish instructional materials and assessment results. The CRLC Program Directors encourage public media correspondence to reach broader audience at local and national levels.

Acknowledgements: The CRLC was supported in part by a grant to the University of California, Los Angeles from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute through the Precollege and Undergraduate Science Education Program (No. 52006944) and through the National Science Foundation’s Transforming Undergraduate Education in STEM (TUES) program (No. 1022918).