In a recent survey of geoscience employers, more than 75% of respondents indicated that the
particular courses a job candidate had taken were less important predictors of workforce
than the development of problem-solving skills, competencies, and conceptual understanding
(Summa et al., 2017). An effective pathway to develop these attributes is through
in undergraduate research experiences (UREs), which are known to catalyze increases in
conceptual understanding, confidence, and skills through the practice of scientific
investigation (NASEM, 2017). Since many traditional UREs follow an apprentice-style approach
one-on-one mentoring, they are faculty intensive, often selective, and open to fewer
Course-based UREs (CUREs) provide a mechanism to scale up participation and increase access
bringing collaborative research that generates new knowledge with broad relevance into the
classroom (Auchincloss et al., 2014). However, the short-term nature of a CURE (NASEM, 2017)
leaves little time for students to reflect upon alternative interpretations or revise
hypotheses—two fundamental components of the process of science.
Time is a critical factor in the development of science skills and professional attitudes,
because novice researchers become proficient at technical tasks through iterative data
collection relatively rapidly, but it can take more than a year in a URE to develop
perseverance, and a more holistic understanding of the nature of science (Thiry et al.,
How can a URE provide the benefit of time, while also increasing student access to research?
this contribution, we propose that it is possible to resolve this by extending a CURE across
multiple required courses in a curriculum. This gives students the positive impact of a
commitment that is sustained over time, reduces the bottleneck associated with
UREs, and broadens academic and social inclusion by opening the doors of research to
A Curriculum-Based Undergraduate Research Experience
Our novel, multi-semester, curriculum-based undergraduate research experience (MS-CURE) is
five semester-length courses across the core geology curriculum. The two-year sequence
begins with a
sophomore-level course in environmental and applied geology and continues through earth
minerals, structural geology, petrology, and our summer geology field camp. Research is
each course as: (1) writing assignments integrating traditional course topics with the URE;
components of endemic laboratory activities; and (3) short discussions (specific activities
goals are presented in Fig. S11). Importantly, each student retains the same
through the sequence so he/she/they can incrementally build a complex data set while
writing and revising a journal-style research paper at the same time as others in the class.
spans four courses, providing students space for metacognitive reflection from one course to
time to mature in their understanding of the process of science. In order to scaffold the
experience, students incrementally present results at a campus-wide poster forum during the
The student research topics are multidisciplinary and focus on the petrology, geochemistry,
structural geology of a system of mid-crustal fault rocks in the Colorado Rockies. Although
foci are based upon our departmental capabilities and research interests, the MS-CURE model
transferable to other research themes, course sequences, and durations. For example, an
MS-CURE could be
distributed across two or more courses with or without gaps and lead to senior independent
research or a
capstone course. Further, an MS-CURE could capitalize on local geologic, hydrologic, or
problems amenable to collaborative, long-term investigation.
In our MS-CURE, participants prepare thin sections from the field area and analyze them using
petrographic methods and electron probe microanalysis across four consecutive campus-based
URE concludes with original mapping at the field site during the summer field camp, in which
work is placed in a field context and samples for future cohorts are collected. This fosters
and establishes scientific communication and data sharing between past and future cohorts.
assigned samples from the same field site, but each student feels ownership of a unique set
In order to evaluate learning gains and the effectiveness of the MS-CURE, two cohorts of
anonymously responded to a set of questions from the Undergraduate Research Student
(URSSA; Weston and Laursen, 2015) at the end of the five-course sequence. Both cohorts were
the same instructors (JLA and SCK), and an external evaluator (EGC) prompted students to
respond to the
URSSA on the basis of the embedded URE. We then compared published data (Thiry et al., 2012)
(≤1 year) and experienced (>1 year) undergraduate researchers to the MS-CURE students.
the comparison groups participated in apprentice-style UREs predominated by bioscience
two research-intensive universities. Those participants were competitively selected,
and had access to supplemental enrichment activities as part of their experience. Therefore,
comparison groups likely reflect best-case URE outcomes. In contrast, our MS-CURE reached a
section of students who completed their research as part of graded, required courses that
topics and exams and a higher student-faculty ratio, which can discourage interest in
(Auchincloss et al., 2014).
The comparative results show that the MS-CURE students experienced gains comparable to the
apprentice-style URE students (Table 1). In the category of personal and professional gains,
five items and the mean for the category show statistically significant gains between the
comparison group and the MS-CURE group. This suggests that extended time helped the MS-CURE
develop self-confidence in their ability to function as scientists. Alternatively, other
as group interaction among the MS-CURE students, as well as with the instructors, fostered
personal and professional gains. In the category of thinking and working like a scientist,
group showed high Likert scores that are similar to those of experienced students, although
statistically indistinguishable from novice students. The highest gains were in perceived
in problem solving and probably reflect the real-world nature of the research project.
Students of lower socioeconomic status, first-generation students, and underrepresented
groups often are
unaware of the benefits of research and thus may not apply for competitive research
(NASEM, 2017). Extending the traditional CURE into a curriculum-embedded experience provides
opportunity for all students in an academic major to have access to a more authentic
that can foster gains in confidence, comfort in working with others, and problem solving.
examples of the types of changes to student learning that promote workforce preparedness
(Summa et al.,
2017). For students, the MS-CURE model supports enhancement of social diversity and thus
playing field for research access. For academic departments, student-focused research
provides a central
organizing theme for the curriculum and allows undergraduates and faculty to operate within
Funding was provided by NSF DUE 1525590. We thank two anonymous reviewers for comments that
improve the manuscript.
- Auchincloss, L.C., Laursen, S.L., Branchaw, J.L., Eagan, K., Graham, M., Hanauer, D.I.,
McLinn, C.M., Pelaez, N., Rowland, S., Towns, M., Trautmann, N.M., Varma-Nelson, P.,
and Dolan, E.L., 2014, Assessment of course-based undergraduate research experiences: A
report: CBE Life Sciences Education, v. 13, p. 29–40,
- National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM), 2017, Undergraduate
Experiences for STEM Students: Successes, Challenges, and Opportunities: Washington,
Academies Press, 279 p., https://doi.org/10.17226/24622.
- Summa, L., Keane, C., and Mosher, S., 2017, Meeting changing workforce needs in
geoscience with new
thinking about undergraduate education: GSA Today, v. 27, no. 9, p. 60–61,
- Thiry, H., Weston, T.J., Laursen, S.L., and Hunter, A.-B., 2012, The benefits of
experiences: Differences in novice and experienced students’ reported gains from
research: CBE Life Sciences Education, v. 11, p. 260–272,
- Weston, T.J., and Laursen, S.L., 2015, The Undergraduate Research Student
Validation for use in program evaluation: CBE Life Sciences Education, v. 14, p. 1–10,
Manuscript received 24 Mar. 2020. Revised manuscript received 5 May 2020.
Manuscript accepted 8 May 2020. Posted 27 May 2020.
© 2020, The Geological Society of America. CC-BY-NC.