Transforming STEM Laboratory Education: A Scalable Framework for Designing Authentic Undergraduate Research Experiences

Project No.
PI Name
Erin Sanders
University of California Los Angeles

Abstract 1

Transforming STEM Laboratory Education: A Scalable Framework for Designing Authentic Undergraduate Research Experiences

Presentation Type
Erin R. Sanders and Marc Levis-Fitzgerald (both UCLA)


Changes in pedagogy are critical to efforts aimed at improving student learning and retaining the diverse talent pool of entering college students in STEM majors. In addition to reconsidering the traditional lecture format, STEM instructors also are reexamining the ways in which laboratory instruction is delivered to our undergraduates. The positive outcomes associated with engaging students in authentic research have prompted faculty to explore ways by which to scale the traditional apprenticeship model to an entire laboratory class. These innovative efforts have produced what are known as course-based undergraduate research experiences, or CUREs. This study describes a bifurcated laboratory curriculum implemented in 2010 at UCLA. It was created as a framework for immersing large numbers of third and fourth year undergraduate Life Science majors into parallel research experiences that account for varied levels of academic preparedness, a wide range of confidence and proficiency in laboratory skills, and different levels of commitment or interest in research. The timing benefits students whether admitted as freshmen or transfer students. This study investigated potential benefits of CUREs. It also illustrated the advantages of applying backwards design during initial stages of curriculum development, ensuring all students have opportunity to achieve the learning outcomes irrespective of the type of research experience.


All majors in two Life Science departments were given the option to fulfill their laboratory course requirements for their respective degree programs by completing one of two distinct research paths. One path immerses students in scientific discovery experienced through team research projects (CUREs), and the other path through a mentored, independent research project (apprentice-based research experiences, or AREs). The goal of this study was to measure and compare studentsメ affective and cognitive gains by path.


The study utilized two sources of data: pre/post surveys and embedded student assignments. Both data sources were merged with existing demographic data. Descriptive analyses of survey responses were conducted to explore studentsメ self-assessed gains. A rubric-guided evaluation of archived assignments was employed to directly assess student learning.


Survey results indicate there were no significant differences in affective gains by path. Students conveyed which aspects of the curriculum were critical to their learning and development of research-oriented skills. Students� interests in biology increased upon completion of the curriculum, inspiring of subset of CURE participants to subsequently pursue further research. The rubric-guided performance evaluation revealed differences in learning gains for CURE versus ARE participants, with evidence suggesting a CURE can reduce the achievement gap between high performing students and their peers.

Broader Impacts

This research-based curriculum has trained over 1,000 diverse, talented, and ambitious undergraduates for successful careers in science. Life Sciences majors with assorted motivations and laboratory skills find appeal in the bifurcated curricular model. College faculty benefit from the teaching opportunities that expand their pedagogical talents and, in some cases, increase their research productivity. And the framework represents a scalable model by which large research universities can broaden undergraduate participation in scientific research, a factor shown to increase the likelihood of students persisting in their intended STEM majors.

Unexpected Challenges

The biggest challenge has come at the end of the project, coordinating a sustainability plan between two departments. In this case, only one of the two departments involved in the project aggressively pursued institutional support that would allow the courses, particularly the CUREs, to be sustained without grant funding. Maintaining the interdepartmental aspects of the curriculum is attributed primarily to high-profile research faculty, who had previously taught in the program, advocating their support in conversations with faculty leaders involved in curriculum administration. Clearly, as we explored ways in which to sustain the curricular framework, we learned that actions to promote this effort must take place at the department level as opposed to the program level.


Shapiro C, Moberg-Parker J, Toma S, Ayon C, Zimmerman H, Roth-Johnson EA, Hancock SP, Levis-Fitzgerald M, and Sanders ER (2015) Comparing the Impact of Course-Based and Apprentice-Based Research Experiences in a Life Science Laboratory Curriculum. J. Microbiol. Biol. Educ. (December issue, in press).

Sanders ER and Hirsch AM (2014). Immersing Undergraduate Students into Research on the Metagenomics of the Plant Rhizosphere: A Pedagogical Strategy to Engage Civic-Mindedness and Retain Undergraduates in STEM. Front. Plant Sci. 5:157.

Shapiro C, Ayon C, Moberg-Parker J, Levis-Fitzgerald M, and Sanders ER (2013). Strategies for Using Peer-Assisted Learning Effectively in an Undergraduate Bioinformatics Course. Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education 41(1): 24ヨ33.

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