Thursday, January 7, 2016


The traditional undergraduate program of study incorporates a selection of classes that represent a broad spectrum of subdisciplines. Unfortunately, few curricula successfully integrate concepts in all subdisciplines, giving undergraduates the misconception that there is a lack of application or connectedness between class subjects.

Perhaps the most common model of non-professionals engaging in research is the tradition of undergraduate students working in a university research lab. A student conducts an independent research project in a faculty member’s laboratory. These apprentice-style projects have large benefits and are usually well received by the students. However, the demand for more hands-on student research is much larger and universities and colleges are asked to provide more of such meaningful and authentic research experiences to their undergrad students. As opposed to the independent research project course-based undergraduate research experiences (CUREs) target all students enrolled in a particular course. Research is conducted as part of the course, in the classroom and teaching labs. 

A new study published in Life Science Education goes a step further and describes the successful application of a course-embedded research project that bridges undergraduate courses across subdisciplines by integrating laboratory research experiences (ICURE). In this case two biology course laboratories focused on a common laboratory outcome: the identification of insects. The authors explain their choice:

  • First, insects represent the vast majority of organismal biodiversity, a foundational concept in biology. 
  • Second, though methods used to evaluate insect biodiversity are well developed, the methods used to identify insects are currently undergoing revision due to advances in molecular technology. DNA barcoding is a relatively new molecular technique that uses DNA sequence data to identify insects and other organisms and has standardized protocols easily adapted to undergraduate laboratory courses. 
  • Third, the act of insect identification allows students to apply alternative techniques for a common research goal, emphasizing the holistic nature of scientific research.

Students were involved in the collection of specimens (Malaise traps), identification (morphological and via DNA barcoding in a lab component of the course), and the analysis of the results. One of the end results of the course was a functioning database containing species identifications, DNA Barcodes, and basic ecological data. Research data collected were maintained and supplemented each semester and year. 

Guess what, the students liked it:

Taken together, the experimental ICURE showed significant positive attitudinal changes for all areas assessed except for attitudes regarding the statement “I am likely to choose a STEM career.” This contrasts with control sections that only showed significant positive attitudinal changes for one area associated with the understanding of how to conduct a research project in one course. The open-ended nature of the biodiversity/DNA barcoding ICURE design along with experimental troubleshooting appears to have had positive attitudinal effects.

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