4 Scaffolding Research into Undergraduate STEM Curricula and Cultures: An Emerging Model for Systemic Change

Mitchell Malachowski, Jeffrey M. Osborn, Kerry K. Karukstis, Jillian Kinzie, and Elizabeth L. Ambos

Undergraduate research is one of ten high-impact practices that have gained considerable traction in undergraduate education (Kuh, 2008), serving as a mechanism for enhancing student learning, faculty research, and institutional missions. Engagement of undergraduates in research benefits students across demographic groups and disciplines, providing even greater gains for students traditionally underserved by higher education (Kuh et al., 2007; Osborn & Karukstis, 2009; Lopatto, 2009; Brew, 2010; Laursen et al., 2010; Eagan et al., 2013; Collins et al., 2017; Carpi et al., 2017). Undergraduate research exemplifies high levels of academic rigor, fosters active and collaborative learning, builds student-faculty interactions, and lends itself to student-centered, supportive campus environments. The involvement of undergraduates in research is a proven and powerful pedagogy in view of the many benefits gained by students related to their cognitive, intellectual, professional, and personal growth (Osborn & Karukstis, 2009; Hensel, 2012).

Since 1996, the Council of Undergraduate Research (CUR) has offered multi-day Institutes to help institutional teams develop plans to create and institutionalize undergraduate research efforts (Malachowski et al., 2014). For the last 10–15 years, almost without exception, one major goal set by each campus has been to create a more research-rich, scaffolded curriculum. Two key motivations for this are to provide valuable undergraduate research opportunities for all students and to enhance student learning through more intentional curricular planning by the faculty. However, teams invariably discover the significant challenges and long time horizon needed for curricular reform. Challenges include such issues as understanding the different disciplinary cultures among STEM departments/programs; rethinking faculty workload and reward systems for both tenure-track and non-tenure-track faculty; establishing partnerships between faculty and administrators; scaffolding curricular elements linked to student learning outcomes; and partnering with students to fundamentally change the learning process (Malachowski et al., 2015a–c).

With support from the National Science Foundation (Malachowski et al., 2016), CUR—with Indiana University’s Center for Postsecondary Research—is working with 24 departments at 12 institutions across the U.S. over a five-year period on a project we term “CUR Transformations.” These institutions are a mix of public and private; large and small; Carnegie classifications; racial and ethnic demographics, including Historically Black Colleges & Universities and Hispanic-serving institutions; and are geographically spread across the country. The five Principal Investigators (PIs) are leading fundamental research on student, faculty, departmental, and disciplinary influences on the process of integrating and scaffolding research into four-year undergraduate STEM curricula. To achieve a cohesive four-year curriculum that initiates students into a culture of inquiry and research in the discipline, the participating departments are using a backward-design approach to develop scaffolded, research-rich courses that strategically build-in deliberate practices/experiences across the four years to guide students to greater independence and ownership of their learning. Providing all students with more equitable access to the benefits of undergraduate research is critically dependent on: adapting curricula; engaging faculty, students, and administrators; and changing departmental and institutional cultures.

This chapter describes the goals and activities of the CUR Transformations project to delineate a process for departments to integrate and scaffold research across the undergraduate STEM curriculum. By describing the activities and interventions, we are outlining an emerging Theory of Change—a roadmap between the activities and the desired Transformations project outcome—to create a tested framework for other departments and institutions seeking to implement research-rich undergraduate curricula.

1 Undergraduate Research as a Vehicle to Drive and Understand Systemic Change

The 12 participating institutions in CUR Transformations were recruited through a national, three-stage proposal competition. A total of 88 colleges/universities applied, each with two departments among the disciplines of biology, chemistry, physics, and psychology proposed as participants. The final selection of institutions was based on their existing commitment to undergraduate research, as demonstrated by faculty and administrative buy-in, and a capacity for transformative change. Importantly, however, they did not yet have a mature, backward-designed, research-rich curriculum in place but were committed to comprehensive curricular change.

1.1 Selecting Design Factors to Accelerate Systemic Change

The substantial institutional interest in the project reflects a significant demand for curricular transformation that broadens the population of students who gain the benefits of undergraduate research. Participating in a project of national scope can also help advance the transformation process. Building on our past experience with undergraduate research Institutes and NSF-sponsored initiatives (Hensel et al., 2006; Malachowski et al., 2010, 2014), the framework of the CUR Transformations project was crafted with several design factors to accelerate systemic change and enhance the likelihood of sustainability. These include:

  • requiring the involvement of two departments per institution with defined departmental and institutional teams, each with an effective leader;
  • assigning two experienced consultants to each departmental team for sustained guidance, communication, and annual site-visits;
  • providing effective curricular and cultural development tools;
  • enhancing accountability via annual meetings of project participants and consultant site-visits to campuses;
  • using discipline-based education research to help structure the curricular reform process;
  • providing departmental incentive funds;
  • offering resources and dissemination avenues; and
  • providing high-quality research and assessment tools.

The rhythms of these yearly activities begin in the fall with a meeting of institutional/departmental team members, consultants, and PIs, where the approximately 130 participants meet to share and learn from each other, and to plan for the upcoming year. Consultant teams make a visit to each of their two campuses sometime between November and May, site-visit reports are shared soon after, and then teams conduct their data collection and submit an annual report in June. The PIs use these materials to study progress and plan for the subsequent year’s activities. The provision of this design is key to facilitating systemic change.

1.2 Using Backward-Design as a Curricular Catalyst

From the outset, each institutional/departmental team made a four-year commitment to work on Transformations project goals, including the creation of a compendium of materials such as student learning objectives, annual curriculum mapping and scaffolding plans, annual reports, and internal assessment data. The work of each department began with their choices on team composition and a decision-making scheme. They then examined their curriculum, generating learning outcomes for each major and mapping the current curriculum to the learning outcomes. This approach identified redundancies and gaps to ensure that learning goals are uniformly addressed for all tracks within the major. Using backward-design principles forces departments to make tough decisions about what content and skills are really needed for students to achieve learning goals. Additionally, faculty are encouraged to think in advance about the evidence needed to document that learning has been achieved. Backward-design also leads to greater coherence among desired results, evaluation criteria, and teaching and learning experiences, ultimately leading to better student performance (Wiggins & McTighe, 1998, pp. 13–34). The goal for the project—and each team—is to understand how these cohesive, research-rich curricula are developed within diverse disciplinary, departmental, and institutional cultures and practices.

1.3 Implementing Integrated, Scaffolded Research-Rich Experiences

Once curriculum mapping was complete, each department determined their scaffolding plan for research-rich experiences. Several departments completed detailed analyses of science practices, experimental design strategies, and laboratory methods, and the progression of these in each of their existing (or new) courses and laboratories. These scaffolded curriculum matrices helped departments identify specific expectations for student learning, and when and where these should occur in courses and labs.

Some departmental efforts were also guided by student input about research skill development and perceptions of their research experience, faculty workload and reward factors, and institutional data about student involvement in undergraduate research. Notably, most departments were already using a range of assessment tools to collect baseline, formative, and summative data. For example, home-grown surveys about students’ research experiences, end-of-course evaluations, student scores on lab practicals and final exams, surveys of perceptions of scientific identity, and assessments of capstones for research skill development helped inform scaffolding decisions. Combined, these studies helped departments identify needs and potential sites to enhance existing, and develop new, research experiences in their curriculum.

The 24 departmental designs of scaffolded, research-rich experiences varied. Understandably, many departments focused their reform efforts on integrating research into entry-level courses and renovating lab experiences. These efforts typically emphasized incorporating learning activities that developed specific research skills or introduced students broadly to inquiry or specifically to the scientific method. For example, a Biology department reformed its two-semester introductory core to include authentic research experiences. This required changing the labs to a more extensive inquiry-based approach by teaching students all aspects of research, from experimental design to data collection and analyses to dissemination of research results. The reform also included a reduction in the number of first-year student lab reports and an expansion of methods and results sections to more closely reflect presentation in the discipline.

In contrast, other departments focused on upper-division, research-based, and/or capstone courses. One institution emphasized expanded integration of course-based undergraduate research experiences (CUREs) in second-, third-, and fourth-year required and elective courses. This department also enhanced standard lecture courses by integrating extensive in-class discussions of research design, data analysis, and interpretation. 

2 Examining How Transformation Occurs and Its Impact

As we study the curricular transformation process, we are working to understand a) how students view and experience a research-rich curriculum, b) how differing STEM disciplinary cultures influence transformation, and c) the efficacy of different strategies to catalyze transformative change. Our overarching objective is to determine why the systematic institutionalization of undergraduate research occurs more rapidly in some environments and not in others. These fundamental questions are allowing us to create a Theory of Change model—the “hows and whys” of transformation to scaffolded, research-rich undergraduate STEM curricula—that will be portable and transferable to institutions of all types.

2.1 Methodology

To address our research questions, we are using a mixed-methods approach, including surveys, focus groups with students and faculty, observations and interviews with faculty teams and consultants, annual departmental and consultant progress reports, and in-depth site-visits. Also, a novel aspect is the development and testing of experimental questions about research-rich experiences for the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) and the Faculty Survey of Student Engagement (FSSE). These common assessment tools allow for comparison among participating institutions, provide a measure of change within departments over time, and offer evidence of reformed student experiences for reporting and benchmarking. The survey tools will ultimately be available to other departments interested in assessing undergraduate research reform efforts.

2.2 Assessing Students’ Research-Rich Experiences

Assessments of students’ experiences, behaviors, perceptions, attitudes, and learning outcomes offer rich sources of evidence for curricular change and can help guide faculty decisions about instructional improvements (Borrego & Henderson, 2014). The CUR Transformations project simultaneously emphasizes the consideration of both departmental assessment evidence and results from a common, project-wide assessment tool to gauge students’ views and experiences of research-rich curricula.

CUR Transformations’ common assessment tool is a survey asking students about research-driven experiences in their courses (a companion survey that asks faculty about the undergraduate research experiences integrated into their courses is in development). The student survey was administered to over 1,000 students in 2018–2019 to secure baseline data about students’ experiences and evidence of early progress in re-designed courses. These short assessments were most useful to departments’ identification of research-rich strengths and areas for curricular growth. For example, some departments learned that their students were primarily participating in literature review and data collection and that little collaboration was occurring among students. Another discovery made by many departments was that modules and/or stand-alone courses in statistical methods needed to be introduced much earlier in the curriculum. These insights are key assists to curricular reform efforts. Our methodology has similarities to that of Thompson and Marbach-Ad, as each of us gathered survey data on student characteristics that could influence faculty attitudes, intentions, and behaviors (Thompson & Marbach-Ad, this volume).

Broader observations about transformation can also be drawn from the dataset. For example, students identified laboratories as the leading context (50%) for their research-rich experiences, followed by discussion sections (35%). Only a small fraction (8%) identified lecture as the site for research-rich experiences. Regarding what motivated students’ interest in a research experience, the greatest share identified that their career goals involve doing research. Interestingly, a significant proportion of students indicated that they were not interested in research prior to their current experience. This finding corroborates and builds on other studies that demonstrate that early research-rich experiences connect students to research (Killion et al., 2019; Sandquist et al., 2019). Finally, students generally expressed only modest levels of confidence in their research skills, and moderate agreement that their research experience increased their knowledge of technical skills, comfort discussing scientific concepts, ability to explain research to others, and readiness for more demanding research, among other outcomes. These results suggest significant room for enhancing research-rich experiences. We are currently expanding the survey applications to further examine the influence of student characteristics, including first-generation status and racial-ethnic groups.

2.3 Understanding Different Approaches and Faculty Receptivity to Transformation

Companion annual reports from departments and consultants provide information on departmental, institutional, and disciplinary approaches to curricular change. These reports have contributed emerging insights related to such issues as understanding faculty receptivity to the principles of backward-design, faculty views on course-based research as an authentic experience with high value, and challenges of shifting “ownership” for course-based research from the control of individual faculty members to the department. All of these factors are currently being examined to learn more about key influences on the change process.

3 Transformative Change through Undergraduate Research: An Emerging Theory of Change

At the half-way point in CUR Transformations, departments have determined decision-making processes, developed learning outcomes, mapped curricula and outcomes to identify redundancies and gaps, initiated and considered assessment results to inform planning, and shifted to faculty revising curricula/courses in groups vs. independently. These steps appear to be influencing the Transformations outcome of more research-rich curricula since more students are experiencing research, and several departments are reporting that these students have an increased perception of their research skills and an enhanced sense of scientific agency. We are also observing a broader culture shift, exemplified by the following departmental quote:

There is broad participation in the project … There is also the acknowledgement that this type of work is essential to fostering productive post-graduate outcomes for our students, serves to distinguish [us] from competitor institutions, and reflects authentic changes in the obligations of 21st century higher education. In sum, there is a shared acknowledgement that undergraduate research is not only the work that we want to do, but the work that we need to do.

Our initial findings point to several factors indicative of transformational change, providing insight into promising conditions to achieve scaffolded, research-rich curricula. These factors represent practical steps to make changes, and core components of an emerging Theory of Change Model, which will be solidified as the project proceeds. The central finding thus far, and congruent with previous research, is that departments that use evidence-based principles for curricular redesign and actively align faculty and student expectations and rewards to promote curricular change goals meet with success. Six specific conditions appear to correlate with progress:

  1. Identifying multiple and diverse campus leaders to maintain interactions among undergraduate research advocates to sustain the curricular and cultural transformation momentum. For example, departments are more successful if they engage a significant number of the tenure-track and non-tenure-track faculty members with teaching responsibilities. Success is also predicted if departments connect their curricular change process to the priorities of multiple administrators, including chairs, deans, provosts, institutional research professionals, sponsored programs staff, and faculty development centers.
  2. Developing an understanding of—and using—the many levers for change on campus. Which lever (usually a practice or policy) should be “pulled”? When should it be activated? Who should be the dominant force behind the lever? These are significant questions to consider in creating a critical path toward curricular transformation. For example, departments that have taken the time to understand the nuances of their cultural and political landscapes and to plan their transformational work strategically have been the most effective.
  3. Using assessment results to help drive the curricular revision process. Ongoing assessment of the learning environment and student outcomes is an integral component in department change efforts. Departments that have made greater progress have conceptualized action research within the department, assessed degree goals and desired outcomes in terms of research-related components, and are acting on research and assessment findings to improve both student learning and departmental culture. For example, a department is piloting research-based “signature assignments” to systematically assess students’ progression through the curriculum. They also learned from assessments that a key research rotation experience was not helping underrepresented students feel that they were a part of the science community. The notion of assessment as action research—a process in which participants use research techniques to examine their educational practice systematically, to plan, develop solutions, and gauge effect—appears to be a useful frame.
  4. Having communication and decision-making strategies that keep undergraduate research efforts front-and-center.For example, departments that frequently include discussion of their CUR Transformations work at faculty meetings, undertake a department retreat at least once a year to work on shared curricular transformation aims, and report to administrators at regular intervals, are making demonstrably more progress in their transformation efforts.In addition, departments that are creating curriculum review and approval processes that involve all faculty (including non-tenure-track colleagues who have significant teaching responsibilities) are perceived to be on a more sustainable transformation pathway.
  5. Exploiting synergies among the CUR Transformations work with related initiatives on STEM student success and/or high-impact practices. Several institutions/departments also have other major change projects underway (e.g., Howard Hughes Medical Institute) that align with the CUR Transformations aims. By explicitly and transparently interconnecting these efforts, siloing is reduced, synergies among different funding resources (internal and external) are created, and long-term sustainability is all the more likely.
  6. Aligning the goals of the CUR Transformations work on curricular and cultural transitions to broader departmental and institutional goals. The ability of departments to interface their CUR Transformations work with institutional imperatives is a strong predictor of their success in transformation and the likelihood of long-term sustainability. Several departments have linked their CUR Transformations efforts with periodic program reviews, disciplinary certification/accreditation practices, and/or institutional accreditation processes.

In addition to these factors that correlate with success, our findings also suggest several obstacles that impede progress. One of the strongest deterrents to effecting change is the lack of sufficient faculty buy-in for curricular transformation before launching the effort. Even when the work will be accomplished by a subset of the department, or will impact a small array of courses, effective and sustainable change can be thwarted by a group of disinterested individuals. It is also essential to consider the impact on faculty and student workload, both during the transformation process and after the new curriculum is in place. Added responsibilities will dampen enthusiasm and inhibit moving forward unless there is a commitment to build this work into faculty load. It is important to note that some perceived deterrents—lack of financial resources, changes in administrators, department size (large or small)—do not necessarily constrain progress. The key for those institutions in the CUR Transformations project who are making significant headway is that they have found innovative ways to address their challenges within their own institutional contexts. These approaches will be documented further as the project concludes.

As we continue to develop the Theory of Change Model for this project, we intend to look more closely at the organizational networks described by Bangera et al. (this volume). In their chapter, they consider the challenges of melding the Adaptive Network with the Hierarchical Network found in most organizations in ways that lead to the integration of the novel curricular forms.

4 Conclusions

This project will have impacts beyond the 24 participating departments, their 12 institutions, and the hundreds of thousands of students whom they teach. The Theory of Change model that is emerging will allow a broad and diverse range of institutions and departments/disciplines to: a) assess their readiness for research-scaffolded curricula and new faculty workload and leadership models, b) understand the cultural change process within the context of different STEM disciplinary cultures, and c) take focused steps toward achieving sustained transformations. CUR Transformations is developing and disseminating tools to measure the effectiveness and extent of reform, providing key insights into its effects on student achievement and organizational and cultural change.

5 Acknowledgments

This chapter is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under EHR-DUE grant #16-25354. The opinions, findings, conclusions, and recommendations expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the NSF. We thank the many faculty and staff members working on the project at the participating institutions and the expert consultants working with these institutional teams.

6 About the Authors

Mitchell Malachowski is a Professor of Chemistry at the University of San Diego.

Jeffrey M. Osborn is Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs at The College of New Jersey.

Kerry K. Karukstis is the Ray and Mary Ingwersen Professor of Chemistry at Harvey Mudd College.

Jillian Kinzie is Associate Director Indiana University Center for Postsecondary Research and NSSE Institute.

Elizabeth Ambos is a former Executive Officer for the Council on Undergraduate Research in Washington, DC.

6 References

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Transforming Institutions: Accelerating Systemic Change in Higher Education by Mitchell Malachowski, Jeffrey M. Osborn, Kerry K. Karukstis, Jillian Kinzie, and Elizabeth L. Ambos is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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