Written by Claire Cusack
Meaningful undergraduate research opportunities can be hard to come by. For instance, it’s often the case that students are already in the lab several semesters before pursuing questions, which raises issues of equity (e.g., what type of student can continually volunteer 8-10 hours a week), in the honors program (again, partially related to systemic factors), and the reality is there are typically not enough mentors to supervise independent research for all research assistants. In this blog post, I explain how we created student-led research experiences at scale using approaches from course-based undergraduate research experiences (CUREs). Within classroom settings, CUREs provide enriching research experiences for more students, and here we applied these concepts to our large group of undergraduate researchers in our group. I hope that those interested in mentoring student-led research may adapt this course to their own labs.
Materials can be accessed here. This Google drive contains the Fall 2022 and Spring 2023 syllabi, slides, example code, and their posters.
The EAT Lab and RAs: Who We Are and Context
Currently, the EAT Lab consists of 5 graduate students, 5 post-doctoral fellows, 3 lab managers, 5 study coordinators, a data manager, 23 research assistants at various levels of training (undergraduate students, individuals who are post baccalaureate, master’s students, doctoral students), and our PI Dr. Cheri Levinson. RAs are matched with a graduate student, post-doc, or study coordinator who serve as their primary supervisor. They volunteer up to 10 hours a week, which includes unsupervised time where they complete tasks for their supervisor, an individual supervision meeting, and one hour in the RA lab meeting. Often, students come to the lab hoping to gain research experience to complete a capstone requirement, to help clarify career goals, or augment their materials for PhD and MD programs. This RA meeting will be the focus of this blog post.
All RAs are expected to attend RA meeting. The goal of this meeting is to provide RAs with the experience of being in a research lab environment conducting team science. In previous years, they’ve looked like journal clubs, introducing aspects of the research process conceptually, and/or professional development focused meetings.
Creating the Course
This year, I decided that RA meetings had to look different for the following reasons: 1) I noticed that some RAs had been there longer than I have and likely sat through the same meetings (e.g., what is a literature search); 2) the meetings, while undoubtably helpful, were relatively didactic and passive (e.g., listening to a lecture; responding to discussion questions); and 3) I wanted students to leave this year feeling like they had created knowledge and actively contributed to science. As such, I designed RA meetings as a CURE. CUREs replace cookie-cutter lab courses that have pre-determined answers with student-led inquiry. That is to say, CUREs allow students to learn to do actual science of asking and answering unknown questions all within the bounds of a dedicated class. CUREs have been shown to facilitate STEM retention (Eagan et al., 2013) and be particularly helpful for individuals with minoritized identities continuing in STEM (Espinosa, 2011). Importantly, inquiry-based learning is a pedagogical approach that centers student-led questions and problem-solving, which can be implemented through CUREs (Aditomo et al., 2013). Inquiry-based learning providers students with ownership over their own learning and is associated with increased engagement and academic achievement (Buchanan et al., 2016). I designed this CURE based on Bangera and Brownell’s (2014) assertion that a successful CURE builds self-esteem, encourages confidence, teaches knowledge about research and research skills, and unveils the hidden curriculum and academic norms (Bangera & Brownell, 2014).
Ultimately, my goals were to:
To apply research skills, I designed the course so that RAs worked in small groups on different research projects. The steps I took before the semester started included:
1) Get approval and get data.
As mentioned, the structure of RA meetings vastly differed from prior years, and we needed data. Dr. Levinson allowed us to use lab data for this purpose.
2) Make it feasible.
While I wanted to show as apply as many skills as possible, I also had to think about what was feasible. For example, in a pre-semester survey, many RAs expressed interest in R programming language. Though introducing R may be doable, cleaning a dataset in R and coding from scratch could take a whole semester alone. I cleaned the datasets over the summer so that RAs could “run” with them in the fall. Similarly, I guided questions to ensure students applied statistics they may have been introduced in an introductory statistics course rather than more advanced analyses.
3) Get help.
Caroline Christian, 5th-year doctoral candidate in the EAT Lab, agreed to help me. I was absolutely thrilled she came on board because she is truly brilliant, a phenomenal person to work with, and really, a great person just to be around! Working with Caroline made implementing this course much easier. Additionally, Madison Hooper, a doctoral candidate at Vanderbilt University and EAT Lab collaborator, provided support in supervising one of the research groups. I also gathered syllabi from my undergraduate mentor, Dr. Jennifer Hughes, who implements CUREs at Agnes Scott College.
4) Think about timing.
Because RAs volunteer and are busy humans outside of the EAT Lab, I wanted to restrict the time they worked on their projects to within the time of our lab meetings. I started with end goals and designed the course backwards accordingly.
How We Approached Our Goals
1) Co-Create a Learning Ecosystem.
To co-create a learning ecosystem, we strove to increase participation and create a climate where all students felt their contribution was necessary. As with many group dynamics, it is common for more confident members to take up space. In developing group activities, we were intentional in which student would share. Sometimes, this decision was random (e.g., “the youngest water sign will share”); other times, we asked a student who maybe hadn’t spoken recently. Additionally, when students asked questions, we took them seriously and praised the ask. We tried to give students opportunities to hear from each other and value diverse perspectives. Lastly, we left 2 meetings each semester for an RA-driven topic, meaning they chose what they wanted to discuss. These topics were decided through brief surveys and group discussion. In this way, students played a role in deciding the course content. The topics they decided on included CVs, career paths, and how to talk about their eat lab experiences (in cover letters, statements, interviews). Even when topics could have been more passive and didactive, we continued to stress active learning and participation throughout these sessions (e.g., each RA had to peer review each other’s CVs).
2) Foster a sense of community and belongingness.
Building community and a sense of belongingness takes time. We approached this goal by starting the meetings with check-in questions that were not related to their work or academics. After one meeting, I felt confident that they could plan a horror movie watch party, something that could not have been said about these students last year! We asked about their lives/things they had mentioned in previous meetings. We brought in snacks. An RA left anonymous feedback for office hours, so I created office hours. When students shared about their own experience or how their culture viewed the topics we were discussing, we actively listened and validated their insight. I think of this goal largely as the “in between moments.” I loved coming into the lab and seeing them connect, even outside of RA meetings. Importantly, the group research projects acted to build community as well as they required students to work together and depend on each other.
3) Apply research skills.
Students can volunteer in many labs without actually learning how to ask a research question, much less test one. If we want people to stay in STEM, we need to provide them with real opportunities to practice STEM. In one of our early meetings, I presented students with a list of constructs and asked them to reflect on what interested them (e.g., the “think” of a think-pair-share activity). Briefly, in the fall semester, we formed research groups, decided on questions, discussed open science principles, and introduced R and data visualization. Students read articles, created a collective literature search, and presented short summaries on their articles (RAs who attended asynchronously sent in videos of their lightning talks). In the spring semester, we focused on interpreting analyses, identifying the main findings, making a poster, writing an abstract, and reflecting.
1) Be flexible (and over-budget time).
We revised the syllabi several times based on the pace we accomplished learning objectives. There were points where I accepted that we may not finish posters. I thought that it was worth spending more time on topics to deepen learning than it was to rush an outcome (i.e., poster). Some topics took more time than I anticipated (literature search, R, and creating posters), others less (writing an abstract). Sometimes, our check-in question took longer than I had allotted. I decided to take this time because I thought it was important in approaching the goal to build community.
2) It is difficult to design active learning with RAs attending in-person, virtually, and asynchronously.
We tried to generate activities for asynchronous RAs and sent video recordings of meetings, and frankly, it was challenging. Even if we did have activities for them so that they could contribute, I worried about group cohesion. I asked RAs for suggestions on solutions, and they decided to create slack channels and groupme’s for their research groups. I hope that helped, but honestly, I do not think that this course (at least the way I designed it) worked well for asynchronous students.
3) Let go of perfection.
The point of the course was to grow in scientific knowledge and build community. Were the literature reviews thorough? No, but they got experience of reading critically, synthesizing articles succinctly, and integrating multiple articles. Can they code in R after this course? Some RAs took it on themselves to deep dive into R and can! Others, maybe not. That said, when new RAs joined in the Spring semester, my heart swelled as I heard existing RAs explain R and orient new students to the language and software. The analyses may not be publication quality, but they did learn to interpret output. The posters could use more edits, and we opted for more general feedback than nitpicking. It was tricky to balance breadth and depth but letting go of perfection helped.
At the end of the semester, I asked RAs about their experience. When asked about their experience in RA meeting, one student wrote:
“I loved them! It was a lil hard, ESPECIALLY as the semester went on, to wake up that early for a meeting so I would maybe suggest keeping them at least very slightly later if at all possible, but that's just personal preference, I know others may prefer morning's. Besides that, they were always a super welcoming environment and I felt like, as we had more meetings together, we were able to get at least a little closer toward an enjoyable conversation among peers rather than a formal meeting. And of course, learned a lot across completing our poster and discussing topics in the realm of professional development.”
Students described that knowing they were working toward a poster made sticking through some of the hard parts (e.g., the literature search; R) more meaningful and motivating. Many reflected that as time went on, they felt as though they came together as a group. As one of our goals was to foster community, I was so happy to hear this feedback. Below are excerpts from end-of-course anonymous student feedback.
Last but not least, their research. One group examined the relationship between anxiety and exercise; another group investigated the associations among emotional regulation, perfectionism, and eating disorder symptoms in adolescents, and the third group investigated the relationship between weight bias internalization and eating disorder symptoms among across demographic variables. It was a joy working with them on their research questions and to grow into myself as mentor. A year is a long time to stick with something, and I am so proud of their grit and sustained engagement. In our second to last meeting of the Spring semester, we held an EAT Lab Symposium. We invited grad students, post docs, and study coordinators to join our RA meeting where they presented their work. One group also presented their work at the University of Louisville’s Undergraduate Research Showcase. Their posters can be accessed here. I am so grateful for our RAs and treasure the time spent with them this year.
When I reflect on the mentors and mentorship I’ve received over the years, especially as an undergraduate student, one of the most impactful things for me is that I felt as though my mentors believed me. They took my goals seriously. They showed up for me when I needed help. They cheered for me. I hope to give RAs a fraction of the support and grace I’ve received from my past and current mentors.
Students have consented to their photos being shared on our website, twitter, and this blog post.
Aditomo, A., Goodyear, P., Bliuc, A.-M., & Ellis, R. A. (2013). Inquiry-based learning in higher education: Principal forms, educational objectives, and disciplinary variations. Studies in Higher Education, 38(9), 1239–1258. https://doi.org/10.1080/03075079.2011.616584
Bangera, G., & Brownell, S. E. (2014). Course-Based Undergraduate Research Experiences Can Make Scientific Research More Inclusive. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 13(4), 602–606. https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe.14-06-0099
Buchanan, S., Harlan, M., Bruce, C., & Edwards, S. (2016). Inquiry Based Learning Models, Information Literacy, and Student Engagement: A literature review. School Libraries Worldwide, 22(2), Article 2. https://doi.org/10.29173/slw6914
Eagan, M. K., Hurtado, S., Chang, M. J., Garcia, G. A., Herrera, F. A., & Garibay, J. C. (2013). Making a Difference in Science Education: The Impact of Undergraduate Research Programs. American Educational Research Journal, 50(4), 683–713. https://doi.org/10.3102/0002831213482038
Espinosa, L. (2011). Pipelines and Pathways: Women of Color in Undergraduate STEM Majors and the College Experiences That Contribute to Persistence. Harvard Educational Review, 81(2), 209–241. https://doi.org/10.17763/haer.81.2.92315ww157656k3u