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Faculty members will implement undergraduate research projects into their classes

Sept. 18, 2015

Photo of Luis Malaret and Heather Townsend in a biology lab. Professor Luis Malaret and Assistant Professor Heather Townsend are two members of a Faculty Learning Community working on implementing undergraduate research projects in their classes at CCRI. The two attended a Course-based Undergraduate Research Experiences Summer Institute in Texas this summer.

In the world of higher education, in-depth research projects often seem out of reach to undergraduates; these undertakings are, instead, the stuff of grad students and postdoctoral fellows. But there is a movement afoot to shake up this paradigm, bringing research to the undergraduate classrooms in both four- and two-year colleges.

At the Community College of Rhode Island, this movement has many advocates, particularly among the members of the Undergraduate Research Faculty Learning Committee (FLC) and the Center for Innovative Teaching Learning and Assessment (CITLA). Both organizations function as shared resources, almost think tanks, for faculty as they look to improve and innovate in the classroom and beyond. And, said Professor Jeanne Mullaney, who also serves as Assessment Coordinator for CITLA, the promotion of undergraduate research comes in high on that list.

“In general, in the STEM fields, there has been a movement towards having more research in the front end to interest students. You’re not waiting until junior and senior year for them to get to the interesting meat of the curriculum,” she said. “And in terms of skills students gain, they’re better able to think analytically and critically, communicate effectively and work in groups. They also gain confidence and become more independent and self-motivated.”

To that end, said Dean of Learning Resources Ruth Sullivan, CITLA invited experts on the topic to its 5th annual winter workshop. Amber Caulkins, program director, College and University Research Collaborative of Rhode Island (The Collaborative), along with Dr. Mercedes Franco, a professor and coordinator for a new undergraduate research initiative at Queensborough Community College in New York, spoke to the group about the positive effects on student engagement, opportunities for collaboration with community organizations in research projects and more.

“The workshop really gave us an opportunity to explore undergraduate research at the community college level,” said Sullivan. “I think a lot of people understand how you can do that with upper-level students, but it’s a little more challenging for community college faculty to think about how to use it in their own classrooms.”

In the hopes of overcoming that challenge, two faculty members in the Biology Department – Professor Luis Malaret and Assistant Professor Heather Townsend – participated in the Course-based Undergraduate Research Experiences (CURE) Summer Institute at University of Texas-Austin this summer. They attended working sessions and informational seminars that addressed scaling undergraduate research projects to entire classes, rather than limiting participation to select students.

“It was definitely an eye-opening experience,” said Townsend, who has routinely worked on Honors Program projects with a few students per semester, but hopes to implement a classroomwide project in 2016. Townsend’s proposed module, which she developed at the conference, would have students researching foods and natural substances that inhibit bacterial growth.

“I get the most interest out of this lab than I do my other labs, and I want to try to develop this and make it a semester-long research project,” she added.

Like Townsend, Malaret engages his students in research projects where he can, but the logistical restrictions of time and funding can weigh on an undergraduate professor in ways that it doesn’t on researchers. Malaret, who has taught organismal biology at the college for 15 years, applied to the workshop with hopes of developing a three-week survey of an anthropogenic forest into a semester-long research experience. Both professors presented “mini-posters” on their projects, and Malaret reported that the tree survey project will take place this fall.

“We’re always talking about how we can make the courses more interesting, more relevant, and also more fruitful for the students,” he said, noting that whenever his students were able to step out of the classroom and into the nature lab, he watched their eyes light up, their curiosity grow. “Research facilitates the students’ ability to take the facts learned in class – all of the dry information – and actually put it to use. They have to work on a problem, they have to go out and actually try to answer the question, to learn skills to be analytical. I think those skills serve students wherever they go, whatever job they’re going to do.”

Malaret and Townsend brought what they learned back to the FLC, which included Maria Coclin, an assistant professor in the Business Department, Duayne Rieger, an assistant professor in the Physics Department, and Regina Traficante, an assistant professor in the Psychology Department.

The FLC met several times this summer in sessions facilitated by Mullaney and Professor Karen Kortz to discuss the characteristics of successful projects and to hone the design of their own research questions or problems. Coclin’s project will determine the financial IQ of CCRI students and faculty; Traficante’s project is titled “Initial Investigations into Counseling Techniques and Careers” and Rieger’s project will investigate the influence of ocean acidification on calcareous marine life.

According to studies Mullaney referenced as reported by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, undergraduate research has been recognized as a “high impact practice” that is beneficial for students from many backgrounds, particularly those from underserved or underrepresented communities. This makes it all the more important for CCRI, which boasts a diverse population filled with nontraditional as well as traditional learners from all backgrounds, to implement undergraduate research as part of its educational strategy.

Sullivan and Mullaney said they were pleased to note that many CCRI faculty members were excited to learn how to promote such opportunities.

“We want to have the kind of practices in our classroom that are going to help students be all that they came here to be and do,” Mullaney said.

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Last Updated: 8/25/16