Do more with less – Teach AND do research!

Faculty with heavy teaching loads and many administrative responsibilities can find it very challenging to make time for research with undergraduates! This post talks about how to integrate your scholarly research as part of your teaching and leverage your time; bring your research into the teaching lab.

As scientists who earned PhDs, we were trained in the ancient model in which a principal investigator supervises a laboratory research minions dedicated solely to the task of carrying out said research. Now, at Primarily Undergraduate Institutions (PUIs) and the landscape is quite different. We don’t have minions – far from it, our students have to attend class with most of their time, they play sports, volunteer, and sometimes work a job – the commuter or non-traditional undergraduate has the added complication of getting to and from campus – research is one more activity to fit into an already very-crowded schedule. As a faculty member, we spend MOST of our time on teaching and college service (advising, committees etc). When people ask me, I often joke that I spend about 80% of my time on preparing and teaching my classes, grading, and student advising, about 30% of my time on college service (administration, paperwork, committee meetings, writing reports etc), and another 30% of my time on my research – writing papers, grants, presentations, supervising students, fixing instrumentation, ordering supplies, planning experiments, sometimes conducting the experiments – and yes…that does add up to more than 100%, and that is the point. PUI mathAt PUIs we have many demands on our time, and my colleagues here will persuasively argue for how to leverage your school’s administration to help your research program, how to organize your lab and choose projects – all essential elements for success in this environment. But I want to talk about an option that you probably haven’t considered, because it is not within the realm of the “typical” training we receive to become PhDs. As my laughable attempt at “PUI math” implies, combining efforts is the only way to get the percentages to add up to 100% – for example, combining the teaching of classes with conducting research. Successfully implementing a research program at a PUI can take many forms, and integrating your research into your classroom should be an option you consider.

I often joke that I spend about 80% of my time on preparing and teaching my classes, grading, and student advising, about 30% of my time on college service, and another 30% of my time on my research – and yes…that does add up to more than 100%

Thus far, my argument for integrating research into the classroom sounds quite self-serving. “Get more research done and save time by doing research while I teach…” But this idea is worth considering not only because it leverages the time and effort you already invest to yield greater returns, but also because it is a fabulous learning experience for the student.

Student-Faculty Research is High Impact

When you integrate your research into your courses/curriculum, you are on solid ground with your administration and with potential funding agencies. In the PCAST (President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology) report of April 2012 – Entitled “Engage to Excel: Producing One Million Additional College Graduates with Degrees in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math,” one of the five core recommendations was “Advocate and provide support for replacing standard laboratory courses with discovery-based research courses.” The authors of this report argued that traditional laboratories do not engage students in the “real discovery” that actually characterizes STEM disciplines. One of the key actions articulated was the need to expand opportunities for students to experience faculty research. In a separate report on TRANSFORMATION AND OPPORTUNITY: THE FUTURE OF THE U.S. RESEARCH ENTERPRISE submitted to the President in November of 2012 reinforced the finding of the first PCAST report by demanding “authentic research experiences” for undergraduates. Both reports acknowledge – what those of us who do research with undergraduates already knew – that original research is a high impact practice that translates to real learning and fills the pipeline of future scientists. These calls to action – and subsequent impacts on federal funding initiatives – motivated and reinforced undergraduate research initiatives across the country. You are in a position to “ride this wave” – so to speak. HIP tableMore than ever, undergraduate research is getting recognized for its beneficial learning outcomes, and as educators – we must consider how to make these opportunities available to as many students as possible.

“Students who participate in undergraduate research are more likely to continue on to graduate school, are more satisfied with their overall educational experience, and demonstrate greater problem-solving and research skills.” Brownell and Swaner, AAC&U, Peer Review, Spring 2009 (drawing from the LEAP report and Kuh, 2008)

Models of success

We teach first-year intro labs and traditional lectures as well as small seminars and research-methods courses. What successful models exists for bringing original research into any and all of these environments.

Making research a requirement for graduates of the major/program.

This works for small departments where the ratio of research-active faculty to majors is high. Of course, this model implies that the institution is supporting individual faculty research programs and perhaps even compensating faculty for engaging students in these high-impact learning practices by either embedding the research requirement within a course (so faculty receive “teaching credit” towards their load) or by offering release time or teaching credit for a certain number of individual mentorships. It also assumes that faculty have time and resources to engage these majors in mentored, original research projects. It also requires that the department/program values research enough to embed it within the fabric of the curriculum.

It is my observation that chemistry programs at small PUIs are often small enough to pursue a model like this; but such a model may not be sustainable for large majors. Providing research experiences to 75-100 majors is not typically feasible – especially, when all 75-100 are not going to be interested in research.

Examples: University of San Diego Chemistry Department, The College of Wooster has a long standing requirement that all seniors complete a research capstone experience.

CUREs – Course-based undergraduate research experiences

Embedding (your) original research within a standard credit-bearing course within the major (CURE – course-based undergraduate research experience): This is taking original research and integrating it into the core curriculum – not on the fringes as an independent study experience, but a standard requirement that students roster. For example, organic chemistry lab, instrumental analysis.

One example, developed by Susan Rowland, Elizabeth Gillam, and colleagues, grows out of the Gillam lab’s efforts to create libraries of cytochrome P450 mosaics for potential use as biocatalysts (Rowland et al., Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education 40, 46-62, 2012).  In the this approach, undergraduates who self-selected into a research-focused lab section conducted a preliminary metabolic characterization for a few mutant enzymes. The students were responsible for designing, implementing, and troubleshooting their own experiments, which were reported in a journal-style manuscript. This project was used in a high-enrollment, sophomore level class that enrolls both science majors and non-majors.

Pamela Hanson (a yeast geneticist) and Laura Stultz (an inorganic chemist) at Birmingham Southern College involve 4 undergraduate courses in the Chemistry and Biology curricula (100 and 300 levels) to research the DNA damage effects of KP1019 (and anticancer ruthenium complex) using yeast as a model. This collaboration has resulted in several peer-reviewed publications. (Mol Pharmacol. 2013 Jan;83(1):225-34. doi: 10.1124/mol.112.079657; : Bierle LA, Reich KL, Taylor BE, Blatt EB, Middleton SM, Burke SD, et al. (2015) DNA Damage Response Checkpoint Activation Drives KP1019 Dependent Pre-Anaphase Cell Cycle Delay in S. cerevisiae. PLoS ONE 10(9): e0138085. doi:10.1371/ journal.pone.0138085)

Methods and Resources that can Assist in CURE development

Embedding original research within the reading and analysis of the scientific literature.

Incorporating original research into your teaching laboratory synergizes well with teaching students to read and analyze the literature. There are publications that propose strategies of how to accomplish this. teach-create-road-map-illustrationThe C.R.E.A.T.E. method – (Consider, Read, Elucidate hypothesis, Analyze and interpret data, Think of the next Experiment: Hoskins, Genetics, 2007, 176, 1381) is a primary-literature driven approach to teaching in which a class follows the research of a single research group/lab through the literature. Students improve critical thinking, their attitudes toward science improve, and their confidence in proposing experiments improves. This method has been used in lower-division courses (CBE, 2013, 59, 72) and upper division (CBE, 2011, 10, 368; Microbe, 2015, 10, 108) The C.R.E.A.T.E. method could be adapted to help students in your course understand and learn to propose experiments in your own research area.

I have developed and used my own version of the C.R.E.A.T.E. method to help students understand the scientific literature and learn to do and propose science using the literature (Colabroy BAMED 2011 39 (3) 196).vimeoI have also been very successful using video protocols to train my students on basic technique, while saving more class time for original research – which inevitably takes more time than “canned” laboratories. Using the basic video capture technology available on my smartphone/tablet, I capture video of myself operating basic pieces of instrumentation. I assign these videos prior to lab (with quiz questions!) and students are better prepared to be in the lab and spend more time thinking about research.

Repositories and Consortia of CUREs

CASPiE is a federally funded collaboration among chemistry departments at Purdue University and several other universities and colleges (Weaver et al., Chem. Educ. 11, 125-129. 2006). CASPiE was funded by the National Science Foundation, Chemistry Division, CHE-0418902 in 2004. Additional support was provided by the Discovery Learning Research Center at Purdue University. Specifically, research scientists design modules, based on their own research, that can be adopted by first- and second-year chemistry lab courses. Using peer-led team learning approaches, students in the courses design experiments and generate results that can be used by the module author in his or her research program. The module author may have no involvement with the courses that have adopted his or her module, but contributes to educational efforts by developing the module—and reaps the reward of the students’ efforts. Course instructors may develop their own modules and share them for use at other institutions as well. The research modules that have been developed are appropriate for General Chemistry and Organic Chemistry courses, and range from questions about the effects of food processing on phytochemical antioxidants, to design of a potential anti-viral drug candidate, to characterization of semiconducting films’ use for solar energy conversion.

In my experience, conducting original research into the teaching lab is an incredibly productive experience for the students with tremendous learning outcomes.

CUREnet (Course-based Undergraduate Research Experiences Network – is a database of CURE experiences from across disciplines. You may find a model here for the type of CURE experience you are trying to design. As an NSF funded project, it creates “a network of people and programs that are creating course-based undergraduate research experiences (CUREs) in biology as a means of helping students understand core concepts in biology, develop core scientific competencies, and become active, contributing members of the scientific community”. While most of the courses are in biology, there are biochemistry courses and options to submit courses in General and Organic Chemistry.

What do Successful CUREs look like?

Cynthia Brahme wrote a great blog post on CUREs, in which she articulated successful elements among CURE experience, and this list has been true in my own experience.

  1. Well-defined problems: The project focuses on a well-defined problem, where individual student projects have well-defined goals. Small student projects generate real knowledge and often contribute to a larger project.
  2. Important but not “hot”: Although the research completed in these CUREs generates new knowledge that is of interest beyond the scope of the class, all investigate a research question that tolerates the slower pace of undergraduate research.
  3. Bite-sized projects: The student projects are designed such that they can largely be completed in time allotted for the class, with minimal out-of-class lab work required.
  4. “Common tools, different problems” (Shaffer et al, 2010): Students use the same techniques to work on different projects. This allows for greater peer teaching and lower resource use, including the resource of faculty time.
  5. Amenable to iteration. Because developing a CURE requires a significant amount of time and energy and because multiple (perhaps dozens or more) students will be working on the project each year, it’s important that the project have interesting subquestions that don’t require a complete project redesign.
  6. Low resource requirements. In general, the projects described here have relatively low resource demands, using cheap model systems and relatively inexpensive reagents. In the case of the large national projects, important resources are provided by a central source and funded by a national funding agency.
  7. Student collaboration. Although designated by CUREnet as an essential element of all CUREs, it’s worth noting that all of the CUREs outlined here explicitly include student collaboration.
  8. Faculty guidance. All of the CUREs described here carefully guide students through the projects, providing regular meetings with set milestones to keep relatively large groups of students on track.
  9. Collaboration across institutions. Although it’s not an essential element, many faculty who have developed CUREs find it advantageous to collaborate across institutions. Faculty at research-intensive institutions may have resources that can help projects move over unanticipated roadblocks, while faculty at PUIs may be able to carry the project forward in different contexts. In addition, these cross-institutional collaborations can provide opportunities for undergraduates to do research in a different context, or graduate students or post-docs to teach in a different context than at their home institution.

Does it work?

In my experience, conducting original research into the teaching lab is an incredibly productive experience for the students with tremendous learning outcomes. Evaluation of the students must accommodate the unexpected nature of real science. You don’t want students to resist or resent the unpredictable nature of real science because they are so worried about their grade. I emphasize the research process is what I am evaluating.

I would not have been brave enough or savvy enough to have pulled this off in my first three years as a faculty member – but that doesn’t mean you aren’t! Can you leverage collaborations with your graduate or post-doc laboratories? Is there a national program that dovetails with your research interests?

Don’t Forget about Assessment

I would be remiss to not mention how one can do curriculum based or  Course-based undergraduate research without pointing you to some tools for assessment. If you haven’t already realized this – The era of assessment is upon us. Compelling assessment can help you make your case for funding both within and outside your institution.

KeriColabroy-0258~Dr. Keri L. Colabroy is an Associate Professor of Chemistry at Muhlenberg College. She engages undergraduates in research in the teaching lab and through independent study investigating enzymes in bacterial natural product biosynthesis.


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