By Hanbing Lin*
Course-based Undergraduate Research Experiences (CUREs) have emerged in response to studies showing the benefits of undergraduate students participating in research. Because it is embedded within a course, it has the added benefit of reaching a wider range of students, some of whom have never considered doing research or do not know how to find research opportunities (Dolan, 2016). In CUREs, instead of several cookbook-style labs, students participate in a semester-long research project. Floyd Beckford, Ph.D., Professor of Duke Kunshan University, who has implemented CUREs in his CHEM 402 course, defines CUREs as “a laboratory experience that will open up opportunities to develop your creativity and critical thinking skills and add to the potential knowledge base of this particular area.” We interviewed Prof. Beckford and asked him to share more of his experience with CUREs.
Looking back on his first-time teaching CUREs, he says, “Years ago, back in the US, I was assigned to teach environmental Chemistry, a required course for environmental majors. Most of the students in this program did not like chemistry but were outdoorsy, so I took them out into the woods to dig up soil and water samples. They were in their element. It was not as bad after that when they returned to the lab since they had a more intimate connection with what they were doing.”
When asked what he likes about CUREs, Prof. Beckford says, “Traditional labs are set up and optimized so that students don’t fail. They are told to do X, Y and Z and are expected to get A. It eliminates all the problem-solving training. In research, that is not the case. Students do need to figure out certain things and come up with solutions on their own. The sooner they start this process, the better for them over these four years. In CUREs, they learn by doing. They come up with questions as they are doing it and come up with solutions as they are doing it. It is an iterative process. They see what does not work and find out what works. It is also important to have students connect what they learn in class and what they can do with it.” Prof. Beckford suggests that with CUREs we can scaffold training for Signature Work (SW) project in the DKU curriculum, because SW calls for students to identify complicated problems that are of particular importance and to investigate these through curricular and related co-curricular experiences. In CURE-framed courses, students with diverse backgrounds gain more confidence, creativity and critical thinking skills by experiencing the authentic scientific investigations
Choose a Suitable Project
After deciding to teach a CURE and incorporating research into the course learning objectives, faculty face the first challenge: picking an appropriate project. It needs to be challenging but doable within the constraints of the course. On this topic, Prof. Beckford suggests, “It is essential to pick projects with a good potential for success. That way, students will appreciate the setbacks, but those will be buried under the more positive outcomes. So, the learning and research progress are met to a certain extent.” The project also needs to be of interest to the students and others not in the class. “Do you ever wonder what is in the rivers of Kunshan? We can find out in our Chemistry lab!”
Decide Student Freedom and Responsibilities with the Project
Besides teaching content knowledge, CUREs also foster students as future scientists. Students should be given the freedom to explore, but to what extent? The next step is to decide how much flexibility and ownership students will have of the project. Prof. Beckford says in his CHEM 402 course the students have complete responsibility for the execution of the project. They plan the experiments and then consult with him to ensure that they are on the right track and that various issues such as lab safety have been considered.
To help students experience first-hand how a research project is developed and carried out, Prof. Beckford requires students to do a complete risk assessment before starting the project. “That means they must consider the experiments they want to do, which chemicals/other materials they will need, and investigate the risk associated with those materials. This is now very typical for research-oriented institutions when a new project is being developed. These risk assessments are considered at very high levels of the institution; indeed, projects can be denied approval if the risks are considered too great or unmanageable. So, for the students to undertake this activity is a clear nod to them engaging in scientific research in the future.” He also holds high standards for the “lab report.” The format is to be the same as what will be seen in a typical chemistry journal as he wants to expose students to the procedures that are common among the practicing professionals in the field. He initially was going to have a peer-review of the “article” as a part of the final outcomes, but it did not work out due to the tight schedule of the class.
Develop an Assessment Plan
Another challenge faculty will face while implementing CUREs is assessment. Since it engages students in work that is open-ended with unpredictable outcomes, the assessment cannot rely on the success of their experiments. In Prof. Beckford’s case, student progress is assessed mainly through ongoing conversations with the student and evaluation of the data at hand. He explicitly told students that their results, any results, would be secondary to the actual execution of the project. “So how they do things, planning and execution, is important as opposed to what they actually end with. That way, it is a true research experience, with all the pitfalls: reactions that did not go to plan; products that were unexpected; reactions that just failed and had to be re-thought; reactions that worked far better than expected, etc. All these things teach them how to troubleshoot, pick options, and come up with new ideas. And all these things would be embedded in the learning objectives of the course. So, the students will have met those objectives even if the results from the research were underwhelming.”
Prof. Beckford notices that not knowing what they are expected to get allows students to be more creative and willing to try different things. With the flexible lab schedule, students actually end up spending much more time in the lab than he has expected. When experiments do not go as the students have planned, they are eager to come to the lab and try again. In CUREs, students gain not only content knowledge but also confidence as future researchers. One student in Prof. Beckford’s class reflected on the lab experience, “CURE allows us to combine a wealth of background knowledge, and we really appreciate the opportunity to apply our knowledge. Also, this process of self-exploration gave us a full sense of chemistry and motivated us to carry on because we know we can make a great difference.” Indeed, one student in the course continued the project in the summer and was close to being able to actually present her results at an international conference.
CUREs open doors for students to engage in authentic scientific investigation and discovery in a classroom setting. While participation in CUREs promotes students’ science identity development, science self-efficacy, motivation, and the ability to “think like a scientist” (Esparza et al., 2020), they also bring unique challenges to both students and the instructor. Prof. Beckford says he is still exploring with CUREs at DKU. For instance, many students at DKU are not used to the flexibility and freedom in class, so next time he will probably not be as hands-off. He would like to see this kind of pedagogy implemented more widely at DKU. Incorporating research in a course does not have to be limited to STEM classes and it may be beneficial to start students early. At the introductory level, very careful planning would be necessary for a full-fledged project to be successful at DKU, considering the limited time of 7 weeks. However, he believes that it is worth investigating. It could be done on a smaller scale, and the benefits of this type of pedagogy are very tangible and sought after. Uncertainty is an essential part of the research. Let us get comfortable with it and dive into the unknown together!
Dolan, E. L. (2016). Course-based undergraduate research experiences: current knowledge and future directions. Natl Res Counc Comm Pap, 1, 1-34.
Esparza, D., Wagler, A. E., & Olimpo, J. T. (2020). Characterization of instructor and student behaviors in CURE and non-CURE learning environments: impacts on student motivation, science identity development, and perceptions of the laboratory experience. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 19(1), ar10.
About the Author
*Hanbing Lin, Ph.D., is the Educational Consultant for Sciences for the Center for Teaching and Learning at DKU. She collaborates with the CTL team to work closely with DKU faculty, especially faculty in the Division of Natural and Applied Sciences. She received her Ph.D. in Physics from Drexel University and had taught at college and high school levels in US and China for over a decade before joining DKU.
Special thanks to Christine Sui, our CTL student partner, for her preliminary work for this article including interviews with Prof. Beckford and students in his class.