Using Undergraduate Research Fellows to Support and Sustain Course-based Undergraduate Research Experiences (CUREs)

David Kinner and Mark Lord, Western Carolina University


Course-based undergraduate research experiences (CUREs) are increasingly called on as a way to improve the quality of STEM education, attract and retain STEM majors, and provide broad and equitable access to undergraduate research experiences. Several of our courses are designed to provide students with a significant, authentic research experience while working in small collaborative research groups (Lord and Kinner, 2018). We use undergraduate research fellows (URFs) to support and sustain our research-based courses, which range from introductory to upper-level. The fellows have a hybrid role, ranging from technician, to research assistant, to teaching assistant, to research coach/mentor. Field research takes place in our Western Carolina Hydrological Research Station. Our CUREs, for the most part, include the elements described by Auchincloss et al. (2014).


The research in the CUREs focuses on the on-campus Western Carolina Hydrological Research Station. The station is in a headwaters setting with topography, streams, geology, soils, and a land use history common to the southern Appalachians. The station includes about 50 shallow groundwater wells, about a half dozen stream gage sites, rain gauges, and soil moistures sensors. The station is readily accessible during regular lab times and outside of class periods. Undergraduate Research Fellows commonly work throughout the year. When not directly supporting CUREs, they help run the station and participate in station research. Most URFs have been geology majors (ranging from freshman to senior), but we've also had majors from environmental science, natural resources, and computer science.


CUREs at all levels have used the station for their research. Class sizes ranges from 15 to 40 and students complete research a part of a small group (3-4). We have used the URFs in several courses: introductory geology, geomorphology, soils and hydrology, and hydrogeology.

Class Size

15 to 30 students

How the Activity is Situated in the Course

The research project is fully integrated into the courses, designed to support course-learning goals. Typically, the research project encompasses a quarter to a third of the course, but is intertwined with tradition course components over the semester. Ideally, URFs supporting student research in a CURE have previously taken the course, but this is not necessary depending on their experience level and the research project focus in the CURE.


Our overall goal is to have students in courses benefit by completing an authentic research projects in our courses (ex. critical thinking, synthesis, field and analytical skills, confidence, and communication).

Instructor related goals related to URFs include improving the research experience in our CUREs, making the pedagogical practice more sustainable, and supporting ongoing research.

Goals for our undergraduate research fellows include 1) building their field, lab, and analytical skills, 2) gaining competence in all phases of research, and 3) enhancing their personal growth (e.g. communication, confidence, and leadership).


What are Undergraduate Research Fellows (URFs)?
Undergraduate Research Fellows are students who support ongoing hydrologic and geomorphic research, and help students participating in CUREs learn how to do research. URFs may teach students how to use a certain instrument or help them learn how to develop a research question—their usage during a class depends on their experience and strengths. Our URF model is unique because it engages students in ongoing monitoring, putting their experience somewhere between an undergraduate research experience and an internship.

How are they recruited?
Students are recruited formally with a job announcement and informally among students in our classes. In theory, students with backgrounds in geology, natural resources and environmental sciences are eligible. Students are selected through a competitive interviewing process, although students who have volunteered at the WCHRS will sometimes move into these positions. When selecting students, we consider diversity in all its forms, including students with different experience levels.

How are they trained?
Incumbent URFs usually train new URFs, particularly in field and laboratory procedures. URFs and faculty generally meet on a weekly basis during the academic year to provide background on ongoing research, make sure ongoing tasks are completed, and gather feedback/ideas from the URFs. Summers can be used to train URFs on more complicated procedures and data analysis, as part of work on research projects, which can then be implemented in CUREs.

How do URFs support students in our CUREs?
URFs can support students logistically by providing the right equipment for fieldwork or by helping them identify potential field sites. URFs can also train students on a range of lab and field procedures, and, given enough experience, help groups develop their research questions, ideas, data analysis, and methods. Importantly, URFs increase the frequency of feedback provided to students in our CUREs—a key component of any high impact practice.

Notes, Tips, and Logistical Considerations

Though we've found URFs extremely valuable in our CURE classes, we've had to be flexible on their use for practical reasons (as well as pedagogic). For example, the class schedule of URFs may conflict with the CURE class or lab times. In this case, we have URFs support students in the research process outside of scheduled class times (our URFs tend to have more schedule flexibility than us, especially in evenings or on weekends). Also, there may be no viable URFs who have previously taken the CURE class. Again, though this isn't ideal, we try to capitalize on the URFs special research process expertise to provide feedback to students in CUREs (e.g. research question development, equipment expertise, research station logistics, data analysis).


Benefits to Students in CUREs:
Aside from getting the technical and conceptual assistance that they need, students in CUREs may view the URFs as more as peers than their professors. Additionally, well-trained URFs can provide more immediate feedback than the professors alone.

Benefits to URFs:
Several URFs and URF alumni reflected on how these experiences benefited them (Mountjoy et al., 2015). They cited learning procedures and leadership from this experience. They have also been able to cultivate some of their own interests (technology, building, computer programming) into the context of the URF experience.

Benefits to Instructors:
Having the URFs supports the professors in both research and teaching, particularly if the fellows can be part of the program for multiple years. The URFs learn the skills, collecting invaluable and long-term data in the process, and also provide invaluable instructional support.