Embedding Research in Undergraduate Classes Across the Geoscience Curriculum

Wednesday, 16 December, 1:00 P.M. – 4:00 P.M.
Leaders: David Mogk, Montana State University
Location: San Francisco Marriott Marquis - Golden Gate A

Workshop Description

Inquiry. Discovery. Exploration. Undergraduate students can engage authentic research at all levels in the geoscience curriculum, from introductory courses (PCAST, 2012) to required courses for geoscience majors. Research projects embedded in formal coursework are increasingly recognized as an important mechanism to inspire and recruit students to the geosciences in introductory courses, and to provide essential pre-professional development for students continuing in geoscience degree programs. This workshop will present numerous strategies for conducting in-class research projects including use of archived on-line Earth data, use of instrumentation, computer and physical modeling, and field-based research. Participants will receive practical advice on design principles, development and implementation plans, and research project assessments. This workshop builds on the On the Cutting Edge modules on Undergraduate Research in Earth Science Classes: Engaging Students in the First Two Years and Strategies to Involve Undergraduates in Research: Upper Division Courses, Independent Study, and REU's (co-sponsored by CUR).

This workshop derives from a number of workshops convened by the On the Cutting Edge program on Undergraduate Research as Teaching Practice. Key web modules that support this work are:

There is also an extensive literature on the "why" and "how" to design and implement undergraduate research. See this Reference LIst from Pedagogy in Action and advice from the CUR Quarterly from the Council on Undergraduate Research.

We'll use the Wiggins and McTighe "Backwards Design" approach as a template to help you design a research experience for your course.

Goals of the Workshop

The goals of this workshop are

  • Introduce underlying principles and "best practices" to design, develop, and implement an undergraduate research project in your class;
  • provide a step-by-step guide to identify key factors that should be considered in your undergraduate research plan.

Workshop Program


  • Name and institution
  • Course (level) and name of course you plan to introduce embedded research
  • (Very) brief description of the research topic

1. To start, why is it Important for undergraduate students to have research experiences? (Small group discussion)

1. What defines undergraduate research?

2. What "counts" as research?

3. Why do undergraduate Research?

2. Selecting the Right Project (Scoping)

Play to your assets. Capitalize on local research interests and problems, institutions research facilities and strengths, student interest, multi- and inter-disciplinary opportunities, topical opportunities. What do you want to get out of this?

3. Define Goals and Learning Outcomes

What do you want your students to learn? What do you want to accomplish?

There are a number of important goals you may have for your students in designing this research project. Depending on your student audience, geologic setting, level of instruction, availability of instrumentation or software, these goals may vary. What are the goals for your research activity? The goals should be a) student-centered, b) concrete (e.g., Students will be able to....; avoid words like understand, appreciate, value), and c) measurable (see the On the Cutting Edge Course Design module on Setting Goals.

4. Assessing Student Learning Outcomes in a Research Project

Why do assessment?

  • Improve student learning and development through improving the program.
  • Provides students and faculty substantive feedback about student understanding, and program strengths, weaknesses and impact.
  • Accountability: find out whether you have achieved defined goals- for student learning and overall programmatic effectiveness and include the results in annual reports to sponsors and grant proposals.
  • Gather data on your program with an eye to doing education research on REU programs.
  • Effective assessments, embedded into program design, can result in students who are happier and who perform better, and can help guide faculty to create more effective, efficient and gratifying programs that have greater impact.

What's the difference between formative and summative assessment?

  • The goal of formative assessment is to gather feedback that can be used by the instructor and the students to guide improvements in the ongoing teaching and learning context. These are low stakes assessments for students and instructors.
  • The goal of summative assessment is to measure the level of success of proficiency that has been obtained at the end of an instructional unit (or REU program), by comparing it against some standard or benchmark. From Carnegie Mellon "Enhancing Teaching"

Basic Principles of Assessment

There are a few basic principles that will help you effectively develop your own assessment plans to best meet the needs of your project:

5. Some Design Principles

Consider aspects that can be embedded into your class research project to optimize learning, and create an overall positive experience for students:

6. Structuring or Scaffolding the Research Exercise

A well-designed research experience will systematically lead students through the entire project, providing foundational information or experiences to start, and sequentially building students' abilities.

7. Preparing For a Class Research Project

Students and faculty alike have to be well-prepared to undertake a class research project. A lot of preparation has to go into planning logistics, ordering supplies, obtaining licenses and permissions.....Here are some tips:

8. Mentoring

Mentoring is an important component of formative assessments of student performance. Mentoring entails much more than supervising or advising. It requires that mentors have an active interest in the success of students. Consider building the following topics into your research experience;

  • Introducing students to the "Community of Practice"; accepted practices, model behaviors
  • Provide pre-professional career advising; help students explore aspects of our science that they might want to pursue (or avoid).
  • Address ethics and values, and how these apply to the research enterprise.
  • Developing personal traits that prepare students for graduate school or the workforce: curiosity, persistence, ability to work in groups.
  • Providing support for students throughout the project, monitoring their progress, to ensure successful completion.....

"Sometimes the most valuable contribution a mentor can make is just time and attention. It is always surprising to talk to former mentees about their experiences and what they found valuable. Often, their comments focus on a few themes: (1) it helped to have someone believe in my potential, (2) it helped my confidence to know that I could talk or write to someone of your stature, (3) it helped to have you listen to some of my professional development plans and then hear your suggestions.

"When mentoring, don't forget that just your time and attention can have a very significant impact. The combination of the mentor's accessibility and approachability is critical and even small actions can be impactful. Examples may include having lunch with a student and establishing an open-door policy, or in a class setting learning students' names and making a point of requesting student feedback on course material during class time (Gall et al. 2003)."

9. Implementation Plan

You're all dressed up and ready to roll....

  • What are the project management requirements?
  • What is the timeline for this project?
  • What are the critical check points?
  • Are you within budget?
  • Are all responsibilities assigned?
  • Who checks for accountability, according to what standards?
  • What happens when things run amuck?

10. Examples

Numerous examples and case studies can be found in the SERC resource collections

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