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Using research-based lab courses to improve persistence in STEM

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Our project aims to increase undergraduate persistence in the sciences through introductory laboratory courses in which students perform real research experiments and analyze and report their results. They will take part in scientific process and join our department's scientific community early on in their biology careers at the University of Pittsburgh. Ownership of a research question and connection to research community will encourage students to continue in their science courses. Engagement in mental, interdisciplinary challenges presented by authentic research will ready the undergraduates for progressively more complex problem solving and motivate them as they move through their science courses and prepare for careers in science.

In the last four years, we piloted three new research-based freshman laboratory courses and implemented a section of the SEA-Phages program. Most introductory lab PittsburghEERC.fw.pngofferings, however, have continued to be traditional labs that emphasize skill-building and knowledge in short mini-modules or survey format. Now we will exponentially expand the number and breadth of research-based lab course offerings. Using the nationally implemented SEA-Phages course, we will test elements of course design which we hypothesize are important for ownership and engagement. We will use project ownership data in the design of new research-based courses and the ramp-up of successful piloted courses. 

While already committed to the model of parallel project design in building ownership, we recognize the monetary and instructor-time expenses of each student having his/her own project and the potential benefits to community building provided by team-shared projects. We will study how varying the number of phages sequenced within a section impacts student ownership. We also plan to systematically vary formative and summative assessments in the SEA-Phages course and use this data to design assessment in the expansion of new courses.

The implementation of research-based lab courses in addition to SEA-Phages is an important element of our project design. In addition to letting us test, in a new course context, the elements identified as important for SEA-Phages, it is also important for student persistence because it will allow choice to students and thus engage them in the building of their own college education and prepare them for future educational choices. They will not feel forced to take a particular course. The different research projects will reflect the wide breadth of research in our department and thus foster communication about different research areas between students in the courses. Importantly, representing the breadth our department's research will also promote the continuation of these students within the University research community since they will be better prepared to join different labs within and outside the department. Graduate students and post docs from more labs will be able to train in our scientific teaching methods by assisting in the courses that best match their research areas. We expect them to design similar courses as they matriculate to future jobs.