Using a course-based undergraduate research experience to increase leadership opportunities for students

By: Katie Dickinson, research scientist, Kerr Lab (Department of Biology), University of Washington

Katie Dickinson is a research scientist based out of the Kerr Lab (Department of Biology) at the University of Washington

Course-based Undergraduate Research Experiences (CUREs) are becoming increasingly popular, as they enable all students to gain the positive outcomes associated with undergraduate research. In a CURE, students investigate real-world research questions without predefined outcomes.

With support from BEACON and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, our team has developed a CURE on experimental evolution of antibiotic resistance in Escherichia coli for the introductory biology sequence at the University of Washington. In our CURE, students isolate bacteria strains that are sensitive and resistant to rifampicin and streptomycin, do daily transfers to conduct experimental evolution, and gather and analyze data on variation in level of resistance, the fitness effects of resistance, and collateral effects. In addition, students analyze the products of their own evolution experiments; they sequence the relevant gene(s) of their sensitive and resistant bacterial isolates, look for mutations, and explore how those mutations change protein structure and cellular processes. In this way, the students will gain an understanding of the genetic and phenotypic basis of drug resistance.

Currently, our CURE is being scaled so that several thousand students per year can participate.  The goals of our new curriculum include improving undergraduate students’ understanding of key evolutionary concepts and their ability to design experiments, while also increasing their emotional engagement with their learning, academic performance, confidence, resiliency, and professional identity. One of our CURE’s keys to success: peer facilitators.

Peer facilitators work with graduate teaching assistants (TAs) to run each session in the CURE sequence. In lab, PFs assist the TA by 1) demonstrating lab techniques, 2) answering student questions, and 3) facilitating active learning activities designed to increase understanding of evolutionary theory and experimental results. Their help is crucial, because in many cases the PFs—having completed the CURE previously as a student—have a deeper understanding of the protocols and underlying biology than the TAs, who are often new to the CURE. In addition, PFs play a key mentoring role for their younger peers: offering support, advice, and encouragement.

Peer Facilitator Margaux is assisting with lab preparations

Past PFs have said this experience helped them improve their communication and teaching skills, develop leadership qualities, reinforced their own study skills and science knowledge, and increased their confidence and motivation, in addition to enhancing their CVs. I asked current PFs their thoughts on the program and this is what a few of them had to say.

Bao N. a PF since autumn 2017.
“During my freshman year, I enrolled in the Biology CURE. While I never imagined taking the lead role in group projects, I worked diligently and did not hesitate to ask questions. To my surprise, at the end of the quarter, I was chosen among several students to become a peer facilitator- mentors for students in the course’s next offering session. I jumped at this opportunity, as it was my first leadership position in college. It remains one of the most meaningful experiences I have had at the UW. I learned to appreciate the rigorous scientific research happening during and after each class session. I learned to communicate effectively with students as well as other members of the teaching team. I learned to take responsibility for the knowledge and skills student receive, knowing that they will carry these skills into real-world settings, such as a clinic or a research lab. Being a PF is especially meaningful because I was able to support students more inclusively, especially when I can relate to the academic challenges a student can face in this class. Whereas the TA alone would have limited time helping individual students, my role allows me to spend a little extra time with each student. I was also able to incorporate my own experience as an alumnus of the same class in order to help the course developers build lesson plans. I gained many resources from my own peer facilitators and looked up to them as role models. In return, I strive to be very open with my students if they have questions or concerns about how to succeed in class, how to get involved with research or how to apply to certain scholarships.”

Khoi H. a PF since winter 2019.
“Personally, I really enjoy the idea of CURE lab. The lab itself is refreshing in a way, unlike chemistry or physics labs, you come into lab reading a manual and you can always Google what’s about to happen beforehand. It makes the lab just a boring contest of who can repeat what they found online, whereas the CURE lab, it is an immersive, collaborative effort by students and TAs to attempt to understand a subject. I immediately signed up to PF for CURE labs, because I think this is a great addition to the curriculum. The CURE lab allows me to support students and encourage science in them, whilst maintaining the fun and educational environment. To the students, having a PF is helpful because the students are able to relate to the PF since they are both undergrads, so students may be more comfortable asking PFs for help. This is beneficial to both TA and students because we act as a communication bridge between the two. Although we only formally meet in the classroom, a PF can still assist students outside of class, whether that is in other courses, socially, or emotionally. Additionally, being a PF taught me ways to interpret materials in various ways, making me feel more comfortable when it comes to finding another way to explain the material. Overall, having a PF is beneficial to the students—especially because it improves their understanding and allows them to be more engaged in the course.”

Grace D a PF since winter 2017.
“Serving as a PF has furthered my love of teaching science in ways that are inclusive to all, as well as fostering a personal curiosity in research. Without this program, I would never have had the experience or confidence to pursue other research opportunities. It was also through meeting fellow undergrads interested in STEM education that I came to truly appreciate how extraordinary the CURE PF experience is. While the rest of my peers had similar experiences of tutoring and assisting students with worksheets during lecture, there was a unique difference in how we were able to take ownership of the course material and lab techniques, and also collaborate with, advice, and support both the students and other PFs too. As a result, my career goals have shifted more toward research and academia, something I previously didn’t know anything about, never thought I would be interested in, nor believed that I was capable of. It has been an honor to be a part of this incredible CURE family and I am deeply grateful for the ways it has pushed me to become a better scientist, teacher, and friend.”

Cindy T a PF since autumn 2017.
“I never expected to find myself being a part of something like the CURE lab. During my freshman year, I came off as extremely quiet and shy around people – talking to classmates was something I did not voluntarily engage in. After going through the CURE program, I was surprised to be one of the many students that were eligible and selected to be a PF. At first, I doubted myself; would I be able to guide the undergrads in the “right” direction? However, my fears gradually subsided. The community members within the CURE program were so welcoming and accommodating. This small but growing community of TAs and PFs felt like a small family to me. Throughout my time as a PF in this program, I slowly gained the confidence to communicate more clearly and confidently. The concept of the CURE program also appealed to me. Giving undergrads the opportunity to gain lab experience while performing an actual experiment was something unheard of. Instead of doing a textbook lab experiment where there should be expected results, the data students obtain from this experiment do contribute to a greater cause – so there is some amount of real life application.”

Winter 2019 Peer Facilitator team: Back row, left to right: Bao, Grace, Khoi, Margaux, Deja, Julianna, and Angie.  Front row, left to right: Sammi, Yuri, Richard, and Shannon.   Not pictured: Ariel, Alena, Cindy, Lindsey, Rachael, Reilly, Tibebu, and Veronica


One of our goals is to helping low-income and underrepresented students build the skills and confidence needed to complete a STEM major.  We aim to recruit PFs from diverse backgrounds to serve as role models in the classroom.  In addition, we would like to create a PF mentoring ladder where experienced PFs are partnered with newer PFs to help encourage and train each other. At the core of the PF program is mentoring, research, and education.  To help support the PFs we are working on developing additional resources and training modules that will cover topics such as active learning, mentoring, diversity and equity, career support, general teambuilding, and undergraduate research. We hope that as PFs engage in peer mentoring and support activities, they will pay it forward and will become leaders who teach others what they have learned.

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