Initial Publication Date: April 10, 2020

Sustainable Interdisciplinary Research to Inspire Success (SIRIUS), California State University-Sacramento

Kelly McDonald, California State University-Sacramento

The Sustainable Interdisciplinary Research to Inspire Undergraduate Success (SIRIUS) Project, launched in 2015 with support from the California State University Program for Education and Research in Biotechnology, the National Science Foundation, and the W.M. Keck Foundation, aims to increase the number and diversity of science students participating in undergraduate research at Sacramento State, a minority-serving, Masters-granting institution. SIRIUS further aims to create a community of practice through scaffolded, research-based curricula focused on the human impacts on the river system running through the Sacramento State campus. To date, CUREs or CURE modules (short investigations aligned with the curricula of other courses in the project) have been implemented in 16 courses spanning the Biological Sciences, Chemistry, Environmental Studies and Geology departments. Research projects are focused around three scientific threads: Microbial Diversity, Toxicology and Mycorrhizal Fungi.

CURE Development

SIRIUS started when faculty identified a strong need for more research opportunities for our students. A survey administered in 2014 to 300 Juniors and Seniors indicated that only 10-12% were performing undergraduate research and our own faculty could support less than 3% of the need. That was in contrast to over 90% of surveyed students who expressed an interest in participating in undergraduate research. Many students were unaware of the opportunities or had little time outside of class to participate. At about the same time, a group of our faculty were holding informal meetings to discuss the Vision and Change report (AAAS, 2009). While opinions were varied regarding some of the recommendations set forth in the report, all of our faculty agreed that we needed more research opportunities and that the best course of action for us would be to integrate these experiences into existing classes. We were fortunate that over half of our course offerings had associated labs, and a few of them (all upper division) were already designed with research or inquiry-based curriculum.

All re-designed labs in the SIRIUS Project were integrated into existing courses. Some of the course curricula met the criteria for a standalone CURE. Others are shorter experiments or investigations that articulate with other SIRIUS courses, and we refer to these as "CURE modules." The CUREs were designed by a large number of faculty collaborating at the course, department and college level, with the intention of scaffolding the concepts, skills development, and learning outcomes. In some cases, Biology, Chemistry and Environmental Studies courses use the same samples, but collect different data. The intent (and some of this is already occurring) is that these data can be shared across the different courses. We are currently developing a database that will facilitate this level of collaboration.

SIRIUS is just starting to face the challenge of evolving the CURE curricula in response to research progress. The first several semesters of each new course were dedicated to making improvements to the curricula, and several courses changed their research questions and designs substantially for a variety of reasons (e.g., safety concerns, desire to add additional time to the investigations, etc.). Others have changed model organisms or other features of the research plan due to shifts in the faculty teaching the courses. For several of the high-enrollment introductory courses, the projects revolve around biodiversity and monitoring. This has allowed us to keep the basic protocol the same while varying the monitoring sites. Drought and flood conditions and the spring and fall have naturally allowed for differences in temperature, weather, water levels, etc., and have created enough variation to be able to run this CURE for several years without major changes to the research design. Moving to a new Science Complex Building has created some unforeseen challenges with several courses, which will likely force some changes. The PI is planning a summit in the near future to discuss this issue and learn how to support faculty in evolving and sustaining their CUREs.

Barriers or Challenges:

  • Large-enrollment courses have limitations related to the complexity of projects that students can perform due to both budget and mentoring constraints. This is primarily an issue with our lower division courses, so those projects have been designed such that students perform the same basic experiments but get to collect and work with their own unique samples. In some cases, teaching assistants have been able to support faculty and students in these labs.
  • Demands on lab support staff increased with some of the CUREs. Our department was able to provide funding for undergraduate and graduate assistants to support specific lab staff.
  • The quality of student-generated data needs to be monitored. We are creating a database to house student-generated data that can be evaluated by students enrolled in the same courses over multiple semesters, by undergraduate research students who are working on the project outside of class and by faculty (and undergraduate research interns) who are interested in using data for potential dissemination. One of the participating courses is an experimental design and data analysis class, and that class has used raw data sets from other SIRIUS labs and developed their own hypotheses, analyses, and presentations. In some instances, they have identified issues with student-generated data sets.
  • Curricula need to evolve over time to stay true to CURE. We are just starting to face this issue, so we don't have concrete solutions at the moment, but plan to convene the SIRIUS faculty to collectively brainstorm ideas.
  • Coordinating courses across multiple sections and training new faculty and Graduate Teaching Assistants (GTAs) can be a logistical challenge. The PIs held pre-semester meetings to introduce new faculty to the SIRIUS Project, then relied on course coordinators to provide this training. We provided course coordinators with materials for this training, and we generated a set of slides that all faculty could use to introduce students to the SIRIUS Project.
  • Assessing the program is no small task. Program evaluation requires identifying appropriate assessments to evaluate the program, encouraging faculty to evaluate their individual CUREs with course-specific assessments, and avoiding survey fatigue as students progress through multiple SIRIUS curricula. Additionally, evaluation requires managing a large amount of data and finding appropriate tools for analyzing longitudinal impacts.
  • Keeping the momentum and faculty motivation high requires regular attention. While funded, this was largely addressed by holding regular multi-day meetings/workshops that faculty were paid to attend. Semester meetings were also held between course teams and the whole faculty learning community.
  • CUREs require time and resources to be sustained. This is a new challenge, so we have no concrete solutions; however, we are pursuing funding that will both support the existing CUREs and expand the model to more disciplines on our campus and to four nearby community colleges.
  • Students have communicated several weaknesses of the project, including disappointment with experiments that don't work and not enough follow-up (they want to know if their contributions have made an impact on the health of the river system). Much of this relates to messaging and better communication. For instance, how do faculty help students embrace failure? At our summit, we will discuss strategies to address both of these student concerns.

Indicators of success:

  • 16 courses have been re-designed as CUREs or CURE modules across four departments - Biological Sciences, Chemistry, Geology and Environmental Studies
  • 36 Faculty have participated in the SIRIUS Faculty Learning Community; a larger number of faculty and GTAs have taught SIRIUS courses. We started with 16 faculty in the Biological Sciences, so the current level of involvement demonstrates a growth in interest and motivation to contribute to this project/cause.
  • As of May 2019, over 4,300 students from 44 departments have experienced SIRIUS courses.
  • Students return to the SIRIUS program; some students have completed as many as 8 or more SIRIUS courses.
  • We have observed gains in laboratory self-efficacy, science identity and desire to pursue graduate school or a research career as students progress from our introductory to intermediate to capstone CUREs. Students overwhelmingly report that their courses are providing them with authentic research experiences.
    • The Laboratory Course Assessment Survey (Corwin et al., 2015) has demonstrated that students perceive their curriculum to include collaboration, discovery/relevance and iteration and this survey has provided insight related to how to make improvements to curriculum. Scores improve as students move from introductory to intermediate to capstone courses.
  • Interviews with 25 Biology students nearing graduation, who completed 4-7 SIRIUS courses revealed that:
    • All interviewees were aware of SIRIUS Project and mentioned some aspect of it prior to being prompted
    • 24/25 could describe two of three SIRIUS Project goals; 12/25 mentioned all three
    • 20 agreed the project offered authentic research experience (2 disagreed and 3 were unsure)
    • 24/25 thought studying the river was an important scientific endeavor
    • "Relevance/Understanding a local problem" was the most common benefit cited by students
  • The institution has consistently used the SIRIUS Project as an example of what is unique/innovative at Sac State (presentations to donors, the Lt. Governor and at important campus events)
  • Other institutions have requested assistance with similar programs on their own campuses, and we are actively helping them obtain funding and with program development.

The majority of our dissemination efforts to date have been on-campus; however, several courses are starting to share findings at conferences and through contributions to databases. One of our CUREs belongs to the Tiny World Network, and data from that course have been uploaded in the project's repository and presented at the Tiny World Network conference. We have just completed the creation of a database in which students can upload their data to be shared across courses and with the public. We also have plans to make the course curricula public through this database and to potentially publish some of the curricula in science education journals, such as CourseSource. Our long-term goal is to disseminate student work more broadly to the scientific and local (Sacramento) community.


The PIs applied for (and received) institutional funding that provided them reassigned time to develop the project and apply for larger grants. Two system-wide grants were received early in the project to develop a model CURE in an upper-division Developmental Biology course and to begin the re-design of an Introductory Biology lab. With data from these initiatives, the PIs applied for and were awarded an NSF I-USE grant. Most of this funding was applied to faculty incentives, small laboratory equipment or reagents for new course designs and grant administration. The I-USE grant focused on the development and coordination of 12 redesigned labs in biology courses. The PIs followed with two W.M. Keck awards that provided funds for larger instrumentation and the expansion of the project to three other disciplines (chemistry, geology and environmental studies).

The project was initially funded with small campus or system-wide grants (e.g., CSUPERB). These supported the early stages, while the PIs wrote proposals for more substantial funding. NSF and the W.M. Keck Foundation was secured and has supported the project ever since. We are currently writing proposals to expand the project with some funding to sustain certain elements, but we don't yet know what challenges the current project will face without dedicated funding. There are small sources of funds from our department and college to support faculty and student travel to present their work or to fund small research projects.

The labs were re-designed with sustainability in mind. All of the CUREs had to fit within the existing budget from the outset. In some cases, this was achieved by increasing the lab fees by a small amount. However, this increase in lab fees was offset by eliminating the need for students to buy a lab notebook, so that students did not end up paying more money for the CURE courses.

Stakeholder Buy-In

All students taking any of the 10 SIRIUS courses in the Biological Sciences, as well as two Chemistry, two Geology and two Environmental Studies courses participate in the SIRIUS project. These courses span levels from introductory to capstone and the majority are required or frequently taken electives in their respective majors. Therefore, all CUREs contribute toward students' degree requirements. Some also count for General Education, reaching students from more than the four disciplines. All sections of the participating courses implement the same SIRIUS curricula, so particular populations of students are not recruited to the CURE – all enrolled students participate. The courses are scaffolded, both vertically and conceptually, to increase in rigor and provide students with greater autonomy in the capstone course. For example, introductory students write reports and present their work to their instructors and classmates (with some dissemination to databases and other SIRIUS courses), while advanced students are required to write NSF-style proposals and disseminate their work through a college-wide poster session. In one upper-level course, students even design and carry out their own research project. This involves writing a pre-proposal, receiving feedback, and submitting a full proposal for their project, including a literature review. We attempted to achieve buy-in by creating a common message that faculty communicate at the beginning of each semester, illustrating to students in their courses where they fall within the SIRIUS Project and what their contributions will be to the overall program. Students in introductory biology courses, for instance, can see the series of SIRIUS courses that they will take in the years to come and how each contributes to the overall goals. We show them the big picture and communicate the importance of the project – to their education, the scientific community and the river itself. The SIRIUS Project revolves around a river that runs through campus and that many students (who generally come from the surrounding communities) have grown up at least knowing about, if not having direct contact with. Some of the classes collect their own samples at the river, which further demonstrates the authenticity and relevance of the work they are performing.

Faculty have been recruited using several methods. A core group of faculty were attending informal meetings to discuss Vision and Change when discussions about building more research-based curriculum first started. Emails were used to arrange face-to-face meetings to gauge interest in participating and to discuss specific courses and projects that would be appropriate for the theme of "human impacts on the American River." Data related to undergraduate research participation and from a pilot CURE were shared with faculty during the recruitment process. Ultimately, the two faculty spearheading the project were awarded an NSF I-USE grant to pay faculty for their involvement in the project over a four year period. Regular meetings through a Faculty Learning Community (FLC) model helped to promote participation and motivation through the funding period. We support faculty in other ways as well. For example, the PIs of the SIRIUS Project write letters of support for faculty participants in the retention, tenure, and promotion processes; nominate faculty for awards (e.g., Institutional Exceptional Teaching Award); and support faculty in using their SIRIUS participation as leverage for pursuing other funding/grants.

The Chairs of the Departments of Biological Sciences, Geology and Environmental Studies all participated in the FLC. Deans were also involved at various times, and all were invited to FLC activities. The Dean of the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics (NSM) was asked to give a short opening address at one of the FLC's summer workshops. Stories related to the SIRIUS Project were featured in several campus communications, including a glossy pamphlet that is distributed to donors and alumni. The President of the institution was informed of the project early on and often used it as an example of innovative projects that were being conducted at Sacramento State. The PIs were invited (with students who had participated at various levels) to present summaries to Advisory Boards and Fundraising events which further elevated the status of the project both on and beyond campus.

Sustaining Change

Two faculty spent years collecting data, sharing it with other faculty, and discussing the ideas with a variety of campus and community stakeholders to generate excitement about the project. They received small funds to develop a model CURE and buy-out their time to write larger grants. Receiving the larger grants allowed them to pay faculty to meet regularly over the course of four years to collaboratively design and improve CUREs. These meetings were a critical factor in getting the project initiated and sustaining it. As awareness about the project grew, upper administration (including the institution's President) mentioned it often in campus communications and even leveraged its uniqueness to Sacramento State in fundraising efforts. The publicity likely contributed to motivation for the PIs and faculty to continue the efforts. However, the critical mass of faculty that dedicated themselves to the project early was key to success. They expressed enjoyment collaborating within and across disciplines and indicated that working in teams was productive. Several of the faculty emerged as leaders and helped to keep the momentum going. The positive reaction from students is likely a factor for motivating faculty, as we share data with them and they pass along student feedback to us (the PIs).

NSF and W.M. Keck Foundation funding provided the resources that were key to implementation and early sustainability. The two PIs developed a close and effective working relationship in which they divided the work according to their skill sets. Several faculty from different disciplines emerged as leaders and they have been recruited to serve as Co-PIs in the pursuit of funding for SIRIUS II (the expansion).

Faculty seem to really enjoy collaborating through the summer workshops and they report this to be one of the greatest benefits of the project – dedicated time and space to interact with an interdisciplinary group. Only a couple of faculty have dropped out of the FLC, but new faculty have been enthusiastic to take their places. The PIs also tried to use some of the grant's funds to support faculty who were eager to do additional work (outside of the classroom) related to the SIRIUS project – for instance, continuing work in their labs with undergraduate research interns students, traveling to present their work from class/lab, and designing community outreach projects related to the river science. Burnout is an issue that we will have to consider with funding coming to an end and the CUREs maturing to a point in which additional attention will be required to keep them relevant.

Sustaining who is teaching the CURE has been one of the challenging aspects of the project. A group of faculty worked in teams to develop the CUREs and they often taught them. However, particularly for the introductory level CUREs, there are a large number of non-tenure track faculty who rotate in and out of classes and GTAs who are well-trained, but gone after several years of teaching. Early on, the PIs failed to establish a training plan for the non-FLC members who taught the introductory courses (and a few upper division courses). Data indicated that there were instructor-level effects, with students in FLC member-taught courses scoring higher on some of the assessments (including the Laboratory Course Assessment Survey). As a result, the PIs designed a short training module and some slides that all instructors (FLC and non-FLC members) can use to introduce the project to students. The PIs performed the training prior to each semester for several years, then passed that duty on to the course coordinators (all of whom are members of the FLC). This has seemed to be an effective approach, but it is not 100% efficient, as hiring practices often make it difficult to identify new instructors or work with them prior to the semester. Retirements and new hires have also affected the work, and flexibility has been crucial.

This project was aligned with the scholarship of one of the PIs, whose work relates to designing and testing innovations, curricula, and/or programs to improve the learning experiences for students and address equity issues affecting undergraduate biology education. The involvement of both PIs, to some degree, has been motivated by funding time frames. As funding is running out, we are actively seeking more funds to continue and expand the program. The benefits to students, faculty, and our campus are the primary motivations for continuing this work. We want to see the CUREs evolve and know that faculty will need incentives and resources for this, so we are motivated to obtain more funding to support sustainability. I do believe that the PIs have had an important influence on the sustainability of the project; however, the project has other champions who would likely continue to teach their CUREs if the PIs stepped down or leadership changed.

Advice for Implementation

It is less about "what" and more about "who" I wish I had known at the onset of this project. We started this project before many of the meeting reports and research articles on CUREs were published. It took us some time to network with those that were performing CUREs and to familiarize ourselves with the literature. We certainly could have used more guidance early in the project (and throughout) on how to evaluate the impacts of the CUREs. We regret not collecting enough baseline data for research purposes, but this was not the initial point of the program, and we were unaware of the assessments that were available. We also didn't anticipate the amount of time it would take to coordinate such a large project involving so many people, especially as the initiative grew. Having support from more student assistants and staff would have been helpful in performing the administrative duties.

Advice to others: Attend a CURE Summer Institute, take advantage of the existing resources and literature base and collaborate with others when possible. The national CUREs are a great way to get started if you are struggling with ideas for research projects and/or if dissemination is a challenge. Be patient and flexible and spend the time and energy to establish a shared vision and common goals with faculty if you are trying to coordinate a number of CUREs. Think about assessment early, as strong data can help with funding and obtaining campus support.