Broadening the Talent Pool: Creating More Inclusive Course-Based Undergrad Research Experiences (CUREs) 

June 5, 2020

How can a large, diverse student body be afforded unique, engaging and meaningful research experiences when these experiences are typically offered through one-on-one relationships with faculty in grant-funded research labs? Course-based undergraduate research experiences (CUREs) are a growing solution, especially for large science departments. CUREs benefit a diverse student population, but campuses and departments face a challenge for how to provide the opportunities as an inclusive atmosphere. Therefore, we deliberately focused on how our research goals and courses reach and facilitate student engagement and their overall experience.   

CUREs promote science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) opportunities to a diverse student body that may otherwise lack research experiences, thereby increasing engagement and retention in such disciplines and creating a more inclusive pipeline towards STEM careers. Research experiences allow students to develop critical thinking skills, professionalism, a collaborative mindset and technical skills that help them to be more competitive in their job or professional school applications. An additional strength of CUREs is an increase in the involvement of teaching faculty, who develop research collaborations and labs that tackle novel scientific research questions within the context of a university course. 

As instructional faculty at a large university, we recognized that there was a lack of meaningful opportunities to provide students with the engagement and training that they needed for success in STEM fields. We took these shortfalls as an opportunity to collaborate and develop a cluster of courses to best support our students. With high enrollment of a diverse student body in our Biology Department, as well as relatively few microbiology-related research labs, we recognized a growing need for microbiology research experiences and an opportunity to coordinate these experiences amongst faculty to promote student engagement. Furthermore, we found that microbiology career opportunities were widespread in the greater urban community, in fields such as public health, craft breweries, water quality testing, environmental science consulting, bioinformatics and data science. 

Find Areas of Synergy to Support Collaboration Amongst Colleagues 

Our collaboration began with our intent to increase research opportunities for our students. Then we recognized our common interests in microbial ecology, with different approaches to our research and varying levels of applied and discovery-based questions. We developed a cluster of microbial ecology CUREs that focus on different topics and use different lab techniques, but overlap in style and approach to novel undergraduate research.  

Microbial ecology CURE cluster:  

  • Microbial Ecology in Winogradsky Columns: Students isolate novel soil bacteria from columns exposed to spices, herbs and essential oils that are considered to be antimicrobial. Research includes bacteria isolation and identification, as well as characterization of antimicrobial sensitivity to both the experimental antimicrobials and known pharmaceutical antibiotics.  
  • Bits and Code of Life: Students learn common bioinformatic tools and explore urban microbial ecology. Research includes analysis of metagenomic datasets to describe the microbiome and human influences of the built environment.  
  • Urban Water Quality: Students investigate local water pollution while interacting with local monitoring programs. Research includes evaluation of monitoring and detection methods for fecal indicators and exploring the extent of environmental antibiotic resistance in urban water resources. 
  • Microbial Ecology of Fermented Foods: Students identify effects of various treatments, flavorings and additives commonly found in commercial kombucha on microbial communities and the fermentation process. Research includes evaluation of treatment effects upon growth and fermentation in kombucha.  

Individual CUREs are divided across the semesters and have unique course times; each course includes approximately 6 hours per week. However, all are taught in a single collaborative lab space.  Interestingly, this organization has encouraged students to take multiple CUREs within the cluster, in any order that interested them, because of the reinforcement of content and objectives in a non-repetitive manner. 

Identify Student Target Population(s) and Their Unique Needs 

We began our collaboration by identifying the students that most needed, or would benefit from, microbiology CUREs and focused our efforts on the benefits that come from a suite of researchers working together using shared space and resources. This process included consideration of our student population’s current scientific literacy and practical lab skills. We also focused on the benefits and training that the students could obtain from participation in CURE research. 

  • What types of research do students currently have access to within the department? 
  • Are there scientific literacy skills or lab skills that are targets for improvement amongst the student population? 
  • What research questions would be of significant interest to the student population? 

Our CURE students are trained to be allowed 24-hour access to the labs. With this unique independence, there is greater ownership of the research projects; students in different CUREs often work together during open lab hours, sharing ideas and technique information. Such collaboration is foundational to building an inclusive lab environment. Not only do the CUREs enable increased enrollment of students based on the increased availability of research options, but they foster leadership and collaboration amongst students. 

Explore Professional Society, Community Engagement and Partnership Opportunities  

While developing the courses, we emphasized aligning the course objectives to meet research goals, address ASM Curriculum Guidelines for Undergraduate Microbiology and fulfill training in National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) career competencies. Alignment to standard guidelines and competencies provides for a common student experience and better prepare CURE students for careers in microbiology. Resume-building skills also make students significantly more competitive for jobs when they prepare to graduate. The introduction of working partnerships between the CUREs and local interests, such as the Atlanta Fermentation Festival, Atlanta-based kombucha breweries and local water regulatory agencies furthers student engagement with microbiology preparedness and career advancement. 

Read the Inclusive Science issue of the Journal of Microbiology and Biology Education, including Parks S, Joyner J, Nusnbaum M. Reaching a large urban undergraduate population through microbial ecology course-based research experiences. 

Read JMBE's Inclusive Science Issue

Author: Jessica Lee Joyner, Ph.D.

Jessica Lee Joyner, Ph.D.
Jessica Lee Joyner investigates the human impact on local microbial ecology through research with her students.

Author: Matthew Nusnbaum, Ph.D.

Matthew Nusnbaum, Ph.D.
Matthew Nusnbaum's training is in marine chemical ecology and neurobiology.

Author: Samantha Parks, Ph.D.

Samantha Parks, Ph.D.
Samantha Parks conducts DBER investigating student learning improvements, science literacy and STEM identity at Georgia State University.