As transfer student numbers increase at 4-year institutions, we need to provide opportunities for the formation of learning communities and research experience. Course-based research experiences allows for both. Students receive course credit toward their degree, work on independent research, and engage with peers and faculty in a small setting.
Several studies have been conducted to show the advantages of undergraduate research as a value-added experience. (1,2,4,6,8). As an R1 university, we have a tremendous amount of resources devoted to STEM research – but we are unable to accommodate all of our undergraduates who are looking for lab experience. The development of course-based research experiences (CUREs) across colleges and universities has increased the availability of research opportunities for undergraduates. (1,3,5). In addition, they have provided an increased sense of community and interaction with faculty – two factors that were highly valued by all students. The question for us was how can we provide more of these courses given space and personnel constraints and are there student populations that might benefit more directly from these courses?
Several years ago, we increased the number of transfer students we accepted from community colleges and elsewhere. But there was no transfer-specific programming for those students and they had little sense of community. Transfer students tend to be a much more diverse student population in several ways. Their average age is higher than our incoming first-year class, they are more likely to be PELL Grant-eligible (40% of transfer vs 20% of first-year students), first-generation college students (30% of transfer vs 15% of first-year students) and are more likely to work and live off-campus. Although they recognize the value of community and research experience according to surveys, they often state they don’t have the time to invest as they are trying to graduate as quickly as possible.
We received a grant through HHMI (in part) to train faculty to develop CUREs specifically for transfer students. STEM courses that “counted toward graduation” was a way to get buy-in from the students and to be funded by grants and aid. All transfer students needed additional life science courses to complete their degree, and this was a course that wasn’t transferred in through the community colleges so there was space in their degree audits. These were small enrollment courses that lent themselves to forming cohorts of student learning communities as they proposed hypotheses, designed and implemented their experiments, and presented their findings to the class. This allowed transfer students to receive course credit toward graduation in a lower-stress way during that first transition semester.
Course-based Research Experiences Help Transfer Students Transition
Lisa Parks 9.30.2021
|Cell Biology CURE Example:
Testing whether environmental compounds or other chemicals induce cell death
Protocols Provided: Cell seeding and growth, Cell counting, Measuring cytotoxicity, Bradford Assay, Western Blot, Immunofluorescent Analysis
There are thousands of chemicals and compounds that either potentially affect cell growth, metabolism, and death.
This project has a lot of room for student individuality. Students could do endocrine disruptors, for example, or Parkinson’s disease related compounds (i.e., things that kill mitochondria), environmental toxicants, heavy metals, etc. They could test across cell types, concentrations, diseases, etc. They could use the cancer cells and we could get a screen of compounds. Or they can pre-dose with a potential protectant (GSH?) and then expose the cells to something toxic to see if cell death can be attenuated.
This is particularly important because one issue we struggle with is that students with a 2-year associates degree automatically receive credit for all general education requirements through the NC Articulation Agreement. This means that transfer students are left with stacks of required difficult STEM courses with little opportunity to balance their course load for their remaining semesters. In addition, they are often trying to graduate “on time” so they are starting at a new, much larger, state university with little formal introductory programming and often, unfairly heavy STEM course loads. This isn’t the best way to set these students up for success. We found our transfer students falling behind in GPA and time to graduation. Tracking transfer students that take these first-semester CUREs will help us see if this approach increases student retention in the STEM majors, their graduation rates, and through surveys, their feelings of community at NCSU.
Teams of tenured or tenure-track research faculty and teaching-track faculty along with a handful of post-docs continue to develop these courses. As you can imagine, COVID interrupted this effort as we scrambled to go online and closed our lab spaces to undergraduates, but the CURE development continued. Anecdotally, we noticed an increased collaboration and a sense of community among the faculty that extended beyond the workshop training. This has been seen in several studies at other institutions (7,9). As these labs have been developed, it has led to increased team teaching, research projects, and publications. Teaching faculty have had another mechanism for staying current and being engaged in research and literature while giving them another outlet for scholarly work. Research faculty have had another mechanism for exploring side projects that they may not have had the time or funds to pursue in their own labs and allowing them an opportunity to get into the classroom.
Faculty write up or discuss a proposal with each other – an idea that they wish they had time or space to devote to. It’s typically no more than a page. Students take it from there. They spend the first third of the semester learning techniques and protocols, and writing their experimental designs. The rest of the semester is devoted to implementing their experiments, presenting results and receiving feedback at weekly lab meetings, and re-working or replicating their experiments. Final findings are presented as a poster session in our main lobby where all faculty and students are encouraged to stop by. A sample CURE is provided in the box.
As this approach to teaching has increased in our department, it has begun to influence space allocation within the buildings. We are beginning to influence how future buildings are designed and how renovations to existing space can accommodate this approach. We have begun to question whether we need large amphitheaters for 300+ students in a classroom and we are starting to see how we can divide up that space into learning labs and rooms with moveable chairs and tables – facilities that will promote the formation of learning communities and critical thinking skills as opposed to memorization of content.
Thank you to Dana Thomas and Jill Anderson for collecting and providing data about our transfer students.
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