February 15, 2019

Course-based undergraduate research that “someone outside of the course cares about”

Sara Brownell (right) of Arizona State University spoke about her use of course-based undergraduate research experiences (CUREs) in a presentation at SFU on February 6, 2019. The event was organized by biological sciences lecturer Megan Barker (left).

Sara Brownell is harnessing the power of research to fuel student learning.

Brownell is an associate professor in life sciences at Arizona State University. On February 6, 2019, she was at SFU to give a talk on her work running course-based undergraduate research experiences (CUREs) as part of a visit hosted by Megan Barker (lecturer, biological sciences).

CUREs, explained Brownell, engage entire classes in primary research as part of their assigned coursework. They are distinct from the type of lab work traditionally done in science classes in that they focus on a single problem with the goal of generating findings that “someone outside of the course cares about.” This could mean collecting and uploading data on river levels to a government database or conducting an opinion survey and publishing the results in a journal.

Learning to “think like a scientist”

Moving primary research into the classroom, noted Brownell, gives students a new frame for understanding course concepts and the field in general.

“Students engaged in real research learn that research comes with failures. We try things, trouble shoot, they don’t work. They learn about the messiness of science. They learn to analyze data and think like a scientist.”

While many students already engage in research by participating in a faculty member’s research, Brownell noted that CUREs are about making these learning experiences more impactful and accessible.

“Conducting the research in the context of a course means that learning goals and assessments are going to be more intentional and cohesive. For example, when I mentor a student in my lab, I never think about testing their knowledge or skills at the end of the project, but I do when I deliver a course.”

As well, she noted, it allows a broader population of students to engage in the experience.

“Think about how do faculty choose students—based on overall GPA, if they got a good grade in the course. This leaves out the less privileged ones, like the ones that don’t even know that research is a thing. The beauty of CUREs is that they open up this experience to everyone.”

Tricky details

However, Brownell noted that finding the right project can be tricky.

“The first time I tried a CURE, the data gathering process I had designed was too technical. And in the second round, I ran out of time in the semester. Instructors need to recognize that it’s not [necessarily] going to work the first time.”

One of the main factors that instructors need to be aware of, noted Brownell, is the complexity of the data gathering process. She suggested choosing simple techniques like measurement or observation.

“If it takes two months for the students to learn how to do the techniques, that’s not going to work.”

As well, she emphasized the importance of instructor familiarity with the research topic.

“You need to be an expert in the area, or partner with an expert, so that you can recognize what is novel. [Otherwise] you won’t be able to recognize the successes—which is what drives student motivation.”

However, even with all of these challenges, Brownell insisted that the exercise is worthwhile. She cited her own students’ work on student perceptions of instructors’ use of humour.

“The data from that project was published last summer and wound up trending on Reddit. It was really fun to see my students talking about it over social media and referring to it as ‘my research.’ Not my class’s research, but mine.”

For SFU instructors interested in launching a CURE, Brownell suggested talking to an experienced colleague, such as Kevin Lam, a biology lecturer whose BISC 272 course has generated six articles in the Simon Fraser University Science Undergraduate Research Journal.

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