You’re reading the latest issue of Teaching, a weekly newsletter from a team of Chronicle journalists. Sign up here to get it in your inbox on Thursdays.

This week:

  • I describe a department’s effort to build a course-based undergraduate research experience that’s inexpensive and scalable – and transferable to other colleges, too.
  • I pass along a list of new books you may want to check out.
  • I share one reader’s suggestion of a tool that could help you design exams.

Authentic Science for Everyone

Being a scientist means grappling with the unknown. But you wouldn’t know it from the work students traditionally produce in the lab sections of their science classes, which largely train them to execute experiments that lead to predetermined results. To get a more-authentic research experience, undergraduates would have to work alongside professors in their labs – and there are only so many of those positions to go around.

That is starting to change, however, in part through the efforts of professors, science-education experts, and organizations like the Council on Undergraduate Research to make authentic research experiences more broadly available.

One model is the course-based undergraduate research experience, or CURE, which replaces the traditional “cookbook” lab model with a problem whose solution is unknown and that could have application beyond the classroom.

While CUREs have grown in popularity, they can be expensive and difficult to bring to scale. I recently heard from two members of the biology department at James Madison University who said it has created a CURE that meets these challenges.

The department spent several years creating and refining a CURE to completely replace the existing lab sections, most of which put students through exercises to get to results the professors expected. Changing that approach for the 500 to 600 students enrolled in introductory biology meant scale was a major consideration.

Sometimes, authentic research experiences offer students too much freedom to create their own projects and get out of control, said Ray Enke, an associate professor in the department. James Madison’s program avoids this, Enke said, by providing a “semi-controlled setting” where everyone is using the same techniques and supplies, but no one – not even the instructor – knows the answer.

During the first semester, students help measure the biodiversity of an arboretum near campus. They use DNA barcoding, in which a sequenced portion of a genome is used to identify an organism. This means collecting an organism, extracting its code, and using a database to identify it. The second semester, students create their own projects using the same tools.

And DNA barcoding can be used to explore a host of interesting questions in the lab component of students’ second semester, said Oliver J. Hyman, a lecturer in the department. Among them, he said, is product testing: “You can collect sushi and see, Is this sushi that says it’s made out of tuna actually tuna? You can look for plant DNA and see if there are plants used as filler in these hamburgers.”

That, Enke added, gives students the chance to be creative – which supports the broader goal of getting them excited about science. And the department hopes that its students won’t be the only ones who benefit: It’s opening the course up for faculty at other colleges.

Enke, Hyman, and several co-authors have written an article about the CURE for CourseSource, an “open-access journal of peer-reviewed teaching resources for undergraduate biological sciences.” The article includes the materials colleges would need to replicate James Madison’s program, including lesson plans, PowerPoints, and handouts. “It’s essentially all of the pieces you would need,” Enke said, “to take this and use it out-of-the-box rather than spending a few years developing something.” The professors also gave a workshop for instructors interested in their model earlier this summer.

Early results indicate that a large majority of students find the CURE to be a positive way to learn about science early in their careers, Hyman said. And he doesn’t think a department necessarily has to change its whole approach to reap that benefit.

“A lot of instructors can also find one or two labs in their introductory curriculum that are just sort of getting stale and students aren’t having fun with it,” he said, “and there are ways that you can do things just by replacing one or two labs without tearing your entire curriculum apart.”

Seeing the extensive materials James Madison is providing colleagues at other colleges who want to use its model made me wonder how this transfer process works. Readers – from any discipline – have you ever adapted an innovative course designed somewhere else? What was that experience like? Did you hit any snags translating it for your own students? Meet any resistance for using another college’s program as a model? Tell me about it, at beckie.supiano@chronicle.com, and your story may appear in a future newsletter.

**A Paid Message from Hamline University:

Sustainability in Education: Higher-ed institutions work with educators on fostering democratic and inclusive classrooms that create equity for all students.**

New Books on Teaching

Our colleagues Ruth Hammond and Ki-Jana Deadwyler have compiled the paper’s latest list of new books on higher education, and several may be of particular interest to newsletter readers. They write:

  • College Teaching at Its Best: Inspiring Students to Be Enthusiastic, Lifelong Learners, by Chris Palmer. Offers ideas for drawing out quiet students, broadening participation and engagement, and treating students as individuals.
  • Connected Teaching: Relationship, Power, and Mattering in Higher Education, by Harriet L. Schwartz. Applies relational-cultural theory to the classroom, showing how connection and disconnection and the interplay of power, identity, and emotion affect learning, and how self-awareness and relational clarity contribute to effective teaching.
  • Teachin’ It! Breakout Moves That Break Down Barriers for Community College Students, by Felicia Darling. Suggests strategies for creating engaging interactive classrooms where students from diverse backgrounds are motivated to participate and succeed.

    How Reliable Is That Test?

    Recently, we asked for your recommendations of teaching tools. Autar Kaw, a professor in the department of mechanical engineering at the University of South Florida, wrote in to tell us about a free online tool that he designed and Garrick Aden-Buie, a former graduate student, programmed that instructors can use to analyze the reliability of their multiple-choice tests – meaning that a student who took it again would get the same score. The tool, Kaw added, can calculate other measures, too, like the difficulty index of each question, a measure of how many students got it right.

    Are there other online teaching tools you think newsletter readers might benefit from? Send me your suggestions: beckie.supiano@chronicle.com.

    Thanks for reading Teaching. If you have suggestions or ideas, please feel free to email us, at dan.berrett@chronicle.com, beckie.supiano@chronicle.com, beth.mcmurtrie@chronicle.com, or steve.johnson@chronicle.com.

    —Beckie