Initial Publication Date: December 1, 2011

Undergraduate Research Embedded in Geo-Major Courses/Research Intensive Courses

By David Gonzales, Fort Lewis College

Thinking Outside the "Book"

This module showcases the pedagogical strategy of using undergraduate courses to promote authentic, student-driven research where inquiry is the primary focus. This discussion highlights undergraduate courses that were designed to complement and reinforce existing curriculum while allowing students to use their knowledge to engage in the sometimes "messy" and unpredictable outcomes of science. A research-centered course can bolster meaningful student-faculty research opportunities, and enhance their development as capable and informed scientists.

Embedding research in an undergraduate course has the potential of engaging a wider student audience, inciting a passion for inquiry, and building a collaborative spirit amongst the participants. It is an alternative that emphasizes direct engagement and individual responsibility for learning; traits valuable in transforming undergraduate students into competent professionals.

Rewards & Tribulations

Although engaging students in research-based, inquiry-driven coursework is an approach that has many rewards, it clearly presents challenges not experienced in a "traditional" classroom.

Positive Outcomes

  • Students learn topics in geosciences while doing it: develop hypotheses, collect data, analyze and interpret results.
  • The complexities of research are encountered and experienced.
  • Students work as individuals within the context of a team; learn how to work together.
  • Original data can be used for senior projects, independent studies, and collaborative work with other researchers.
  • Has the potential to establish longer term research activities in a program.
  • Infuses more higher-order critical thinking into the curriculum.
  • Results can be published and disseminated.


  • Time investment by instructor for course design, mentoring and guidance, critical feedback, and assessment.
  • Can also be a big time commitment for students.
  • Fewer general topics are covered compared to a traditional lecture-driven class.
  • Getting students to accept an open-ended inquiry format rather as opposed to textbook-style answers.
  • How can you provide robust assessment?

Recommendations for the Design of a Research-Focused Class

  1. Define a research project that is not too broad, but will allow students to develop key content for the project.
  2. Clearly establish the goals and expected outcomes of the research.
  3. Develop class activities and discussions that support and complement the research focus.
  4. Determine which tools are required to carry out the research (e.g., field equipment, analytical instruments, thin sections).
  5. Consider and anticipate logistical issues (e.g., weather, vans, etc.).
  6. Develop and prepare assessment tools prior to teaching the course.
  7. See Recommendations for Integrating Research into Geochemistry (PowerPoint 729kB Oct29 11) by Jeanette Pope, DePauw University.

Case Studies of Classes Built Around Research Projects

See examples of specific case studies used in a variety of environments and subjects, including those with a field emphasis, an analytical instrumentation emphasis, involving interdisciplinary research-intensive topics, and in-class research activities.

Journal Citations in Support of Research-Focused Courses

A number of publications present arguments in support of courses that are designed around a research topic or that are heavily embedded with research. These works point out, to varying degrees, the positive impacts that an intensive research component at the undergraduate level can have to the personal and professional development of students. A sampling of these publications is listed below.

Apedoe, X.S., 2007, Engaging students in inquiry: Tales from and undergraduate geology laboratory-based course: Science Education, p. 631-663.

Apedoe, X.S., Walker, S.E., and Reeves, T.C., 2006, Integrating inquiry-based learning into undergraduate geology, Journal of Geoscience Education, v. 54, p. 414-421.

Carver, R., 1996, Theory for practice: A framework for thinking about experiential education: The Journal of Experiential Education, v. 19, no. 1, p. 8-13.

DeLay, R., 1996, Forming knowledge: Constructivist learning and experiential education, The Journal of Experiential Education, v. 19, p. 76 81.

DiConti, V.D., 2004, Experiential education in a knowledge-based economy: Is it time to reexamine the liberal arts? : The Journal of General Education, v. 53, no. 3-4, p. 167-183.

Jarrett, O.S., and Burnley, P.C., 2003, Engagement in authentic geoscience research: Effects on undergraduates and secondary teachers, Journal of Geoscience Education, v. 51, p. 85-90.

Harnik, P.G., and Ross, R.M., 2003, Developing effective K-16 geoscience research partnerships, Journal of Geoscience Education, v. 51, p. 5-8.

Haury, D.L., 1993, Teaching science through inquiry, ERIC Digest EDO-SE-93-4, 2 p.

Huntoon, J.E., Bluth, G.J.S., and Kennedy, W.A., 2001, Measuring the effects of a research-based field experience on undergraduates and K-12 teachers, Journal of Geoscience Education, v. 49, p. 235-248.

Hunter, A.-B., Laursen, S.L., Seymour, E., 2007, Becoming a scientist: The role undergraduate research in students cognitive, personal, and professional development, Science Education, v. 91, p. 36-74.

O'Neal, M.L., 2003, Field-based research experience in Earth science teacher education, Journal of Geoscience Education, v. 51, p. 64-70

National Academy of Sciences, Committee on Undergraduate Science Education, 1997, Science Teaching Reconsidered: A Handbook, Washington,D.C., National Academy Press, 88 p.

Project Kaleidoscope, 1991, What Works: Building Natural Science Communities: A Plan For Strengthening Undergraduate Science and Mathematics, Volume One, Washington, D.C., Project Kaleidoscope, 100 p.

Seymour, E., Hunter, A.B., Laursen, S.L., and Deantoni, T., 2004, Establishing the benefits of research experiences for undergraduates in the sciences: First findings from a three-year study, Science Education, v. 88, p. 493-534.

Tobias, S., 1992, Revitalizing Undergraduate Science: Why Some Things Work And Most Don't, Tucson, Arizona, Research Corporation, 192 p.