Developing Scalable Research Experiences for Undergraduates

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Title of Abstract: Developing Scalable Research Experiences for Undergraduates

Name of Author: Paul Ulrich
Author Company or Institution: Georgia State University
Author Title: Lecturer
PULSE Fellow: No
Applicable Courses: All Biological Sciences Courses
Course Levels: Faculty Development, Upper Division Course(s)
Approaches: A mixture of the above, Changes in Classroom Approach (flipped classroom, clickers, POGIL, etc.), Material Development
Keywords: theme based laboratory large university

Name, Title, and Institution of Author(s): Dabney Dixon, Georgia State University

Goals and intended outcomes of the project or effort, in the context of the Vision and Change report and recommendations: We are developing Signature Research Experiences at Georgia State University (GSU) to help students establish critical thinking and technical skills in biology. GSU is a large, urban institution with a diverse student body and ~2500 biology majors. Our very strong commitment to diversity is reflected in our No.1 rank among U.S., not-for-profit institutions in awarding bachelor’s degrees to African-American students. Annually, ~8% of biology majors engage in research, and we seek to broaden exposure via cooperative, team-based projects supervised by non-tenure track (NTT) faculty. In the coming five years, we anticipate undergraduate research initiatives to increase impact to 15% of majors (375 students), improve scientific writing and integration of facts within conceptual frameworks, and build momentum among a greater proportion of faculty.

Describe the methods and strategies that you are using: GSU seeks to develop student research and encourage success in STEM careers. In the last three years, we have expanded undergraduate research opportunities. Student teams take ownership in research ranging from natural product chemistry and identification of bacteriophages to protein targeting and bioremediation. In Fall 2011, we established the Undergraduate Research Center (URC). The URC is a focal point for teams of undergraduates and non-tenure track (NTT) mentors to pursue biological questions while encouraging scientific development of students. We also provide Signature Research Experiences to an increasing number of students via theme-based laboratories such as the International Genetically Engineered Machines (iGEM) team and a natural products course. In Spring 2013, we will launch a course integrating basic bioinformatics and the molecular laboratory bench. Each research opportunity develops skills used by STEM professionals. Our learning objectives include (1) critical thinking (inquiry, discovery, hypothesis testing), (2) ability to use primary literature, (3) mastery of technical skills, (4) scientific communication (posters, presentations, written reports), and (5) training in scientific conduct (e.g. responsible conduct certification). Our model for scaling up research experiences to our large student body taps leadership by NTT faculty, and we have found that undergraduate education and biological research are not mutually exclusive. Non-tenure track faculty represent 40% of biology faculty and are poised to prioritize student development via research and (ultimately) publication. NTT faculty direct research groups at low cost and are a key component of our strategy. We are building the program by developing research teams of 15 undergraduates per NTT mentor and occupy six research laboratories (~6500 ft2) vacated by faculty moved to newer buildings. Importantly, undergraduate research oversight will be included in the course load of NTT faculty.

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 will compare student success and progression to the degree for students involved in research and those not involved in research. We will choose matched controls based on credit hours completed, GPA at the start of the research, first generation status, Pell status, and gender. These data will be drawn from a rich database maintained by GSU. Our efforts to date have focused on comparison of research participants in URC and iGEM projects to non-research peers with a standardized quiz to assess conceptual mastery and technical understanding. While these efforts are still in the development phase, student responses have been overwhelmingly positive. Lastly, we will be considering impact of research exposure via publication and recruitment of student researchers to graduate programs.

Impacts of project or effort on students, fellow faculty, department or institution. If no time to have an impact, anticipated impacts: STEM initiatives in GSU Biology have positively affected undergraduates within the department, graduate student mentors, faculty perception of undergraduate research, and support from administrative stakeholders. Notable achievements and impacts of students in the URC and iGEM are a first place award in a university research competition, acceptance as an Oak Ridge Institute of Science Education fellow at the Centers for Disease Control, improved writing skills, heightened confidence, and experimental independence. Graduate student mentors have been active in the iGEM team, overseeing undergraduate projects in the laboratory and laboratory meetings. Student researchers continue to bolster growth by word-of-mouth marketing of their experiences to their peers.

Describe any unexpected challenges you encountered and your methods for dealing with them: Given the number of students and our urban setting, we face challenges to undergraduate research participation including space allocation, workload demands, and assumptions regarding activity of instructional, non-tenure track (NTT) faculty in biological research. We are overcoming space allocation through utilization of research labs vacated by movement of tenure track researchers to new facilities. Finding laboratory space involves persistence, strong relational networks, and creative reconsideration of underutilized areas. Grant proposals have been strategic elements to develop university interest in undergraduate research development. Biases in organizational culture present a significant challenge in the form of the tacit assumption that instructional faculty lack credentials or appropriate training for oversight of research. This roadblock manifests at both internally and externally. Internally, we observe responses ranging from enthusiasm to surprise to dismissal. Externally, we find that reviewers of STEM proposals may question the roles of instructional faculty in undergraduate research. We continue to work to raise awareness of the value of NTT direction of undergraduate research. Historically, instructional and research activities have been largely independent in our department, and we seek to bridge this gap with a culture of undergraduate inquiry as prioritized in the V&C 2009 report and the GSU Strategic Plan. Convincing policy and decision makers in the university will be critical because scaling up research as an instructional priority will increase instructional and administrative burdens. These burdens must transition from ‘overload’ to an appreciated component of NTT workload. We anticipate this cultural shift will develop as we encourage and incentivize development inquiry-based research by NTT.

Describe your completed dissemination activities and your plans for continuing dissemination: Our program is young, but we are developing a strategy to leverage conference opportunities, informal contacts, and branding to improve visibility and information exchange. Among the formal conference opportunities available for us to share our successes and challenges with the STEM community include meetings of the Georgia Academy of Sciences, STEM Teaching and Learning Conference (Statesboro, GA), and AAAS Vision and Change. Smaller contexts include interactions and tours with experts visiting GSU via our STEM Education Series. We anticipate one-on-one interactions with these individuals will counteract tacit assumptions that NTT instructional activity is solely classroom-based. Our physical footprint at GSU is growing and focused in one building, and we are seeking to ‘brand’ this space by increasing visibility, highlighting participants, and increasing our online presence. Recently, one of our talented students was featured in a story by the GSU College of Arts and Sciences. Students are influential elements of our dissemination strategy and have been active at our science club fair, the annual Georgia State Undergraduate Research Conference and nationally at the International Genetically Engineered Machines Jamboree, and recruit and train new students.

Acknowledgements: GSU Technology Fee Program; GSU STEM Program