Initial Publication Date: April 10, 2020

CUREs at Santa Rosa Junior College, Santa Rosa Junior College

Abigail Zoger, Santa Rosa Junior College
Michelle Conley, Santa Rosa Junior College

CURE Development

CUREs got started at SRJC when one of us (Abigail) started teaching a CURE through a collaboration with the UnPAK network (Undergraduates Phenotyping Arabidopsis Knockouts). I then learned that an administrator at our college was working on a proposal to the National Science Foundation (NSF) to offer CUREs at our college. We decided to join forces to write the proposal together with the aim of supporting the development of CUREs across our STEM curriculum. Recently, faculty in behavioral sciences (psychology), computer sciences, and social sciences (economics), became interested and are now developing and teaching CUREs.

All of our CUREs are integrated into existing courses. Some are part of introductory coursework and others are part of second-year coursework. Our college has articulation agreements with the University of California and California State University systems, which means that we have to meet course-level objectives for students to be able to transfer credits. We worked carefully on each CURE to make sure that students' work was addressing a research question or problem, while developing skills and knowledge outlined in the established objectives.

For all of our CUREs, as we make progress with the research, certain questions are answered and new ones emerge. The direction of research is sometimes shaped by opportunities to work with collaborators. For instance, a colleague at another institution and her students are collaborating with us on the introductory biology CURE. We have worked out a particular protocol and she has contributed mutants in a particular pathway. Together, our students are applying the protocol to the mutants to address unanswered questions. In another case, two courses were able to create an interdisciplinary collaboration. An economics class interested in collecting data about happiness teamed up with a math class interested in working on data analysis. The professor of the math course was interested in doing a CURE, but lacked the time to develop one. The two classes were able to collaborate such that the students in the economics class collected data, which the students in the math class analyzed. Specifically, students in the economics class worked on creating a survey that would give a similar answer to a person's happiness level as the Oxford Happiness Questionnaire, but wanted the questions geared towards college students. The economics class created the survey and gathered responses. The students in the math class created an excel spreadsheet for the economics students to enter data into, an then analyzed the data to determine if they were related to the comparison, the Oxford Happiness Questionnaire. This kind of coordination happens mostly at the level of individual CUREs rather than any concerted effort across the CUREs at our college.

We have experienced multiple challenges: heavy teaching loads, minimal incentives for evidence-based instruction and research, limited research infrastructure, and student population that is highly varied in their preparation. In some ways, these challenges are opportunities. For example, we have an opportunity to make lab learning relevant to students through CUREs. They can see the purpose of their work and the applicability of the knowledge and skills they are developing. However, the process of developing and teaching CUREs can be a thankless task. Interested faculty will get involved, but they need to be supported with course buyouts for development and funds to pay students to help with the work involved in developing and teaching CUREs.

Our CURE initiative was successful on multiple fronts:

  • 730 students have completed one or more CUREs
  • 12 faculty have developed and taught CUREs
  • 7 faculty continue to teach the CUREs they developed

Our assessment data show that students realize positive outcomes as summarized in our final report.pdf (Acrobat (PDF) 544kB Oct24 19).

Has your CURE resulted in additions to databases that scientists access, scientific publications, or community reports? The dissemination of data varies across the CUREs. For example, results of the introductory biology CURE are shared with collaborators. The Happiness Index social science CURE is still in an early stage where we are continuing to collect data and do not yet have conclusions ready to share. My goal is to gather data from other colleges to create an index and share the results with many institutions. Even though the project is still in early stages, I have already been asked to speak about my findings at a few other colleges and universities as well as community events. While I am not yet at the point of being able to share any findings yet, I will be happy to present in the future.


When I first started teaching my CURE, a small amount of funding was available from the UnPAK project led by the College of Charleston and funded by the NSF. We then sought our own NSF grant to develop and offer a set of CUREs across the STEM curriculum. This funding made it easy and seamless for other faculty to get started developing CUREs. The funding provided additional time (20% course load buyout), supplies, and student work hours. Using these resources, Michelle was able to develop the Campus Happiness Index CURE, which was a great success. She used the reduced teaching load in the fall semester to develop the CURE, create assignments, and determine how to assess student success. In the spring semester, when she implemented my CURE in some classes, she had a full teaching load, committee obligations, and ran the Economics Club. Time management was challenging since there were many kinks to work out. For greater sustained success, it would have been very helpful to have course buyout for longer than just the planning semester.

The grant has now ended and we are continuing to teach some CUREs but not others.

We have reached the end of our initial NSF funding. We have been able to sustain our low-cost CUREs because they are integrated into our existing courses and, for the most part, have been designed with our limited research infrastructure in mind. Each CURE has its own funding needs, so there doesn't seem to be a single, serve-all source of ongoing support. For instance, one social science CURE would benefit from having an automated way to enter survey response data during a class period. This would save person-hours entering data and increase response rates because survey data could be collected during a class period. However, our college does not have a Scantron machine that could quickly "read" student responses. Funding solutions will need to be found for the particularities of each CURE. In some cases, collaborators at other institutions have built funds for our CUREs into their grants. Despite this, there are unanticipated costs for us given our learning curve with extramural funding. For example, benefits rates changed during our granting period, which cut into our direct costs significantly in an unanticipated way.

Stakeholder Buy-In

Students were quick to buy-in to CUREs. They were excited to be doing work that mattered outside of their classroom and developing skills that would be applicable in the workplace. All of the CUREs we developed were integrated into courses that were required for degree programs, such as introductory biology or general chemistry.

Our general approach to bring faculty on board was to offer course buyouts and funds for undergraduate time, lab materials, or other needed resources to faculty who were willing to develop and teach a CURE. Information about the CURE initiative was shared during faculty meetings and by email. Interested faculty participated in a four-day institute to learn about CURE instruction and begin to design their CUREs. Faculty were then expected to teach their CUREs in the coming academic year. Because we are at a two-year college with heavy teaching loads and no reward structures or incentives for doing research, the course buyouts were critical for enabling faculty to develop and teach a CURE. The additional funds that could be spent on undergraduate wages to help with the work was also critical because it made sure that there was someone who had the time to get CURE-related tasks done. For example, students helped with pilot-testing methods, working out protocols, and developing marketing materials about the initiative.

Some administrators bought in early because of the potential to bring in grant funding and offer additional opportunities to students. There is a sense of pride about the initiative among some college leadership. For example, photos of students working in their CUREs are used in college marketing materials. Other administrators are not as invested. For example, the initiative is not currently a priority for development, which would help to sustain the CUREs and bring additional faculty onboard now that the grant has ended.

Sustaining Change

Some aspects of our CURE initiative have been sustained, but other elements have not. For instance, I continue to teach my CURE and several other STEM faculty are continuing to teach theirs. New faculty in the social sciences have become interested and have developed and taught CUREs in their own courses. However, some faculty never fully developed or taught their CUREs and others have stopped teaching them. For those who have continued, the following factors appear to be important:

  • Curricular fit: The CURE was developed at the right level, meaning that the research was appropriate for introductory level students with varied levels of high school preparation.
  • Integration with curriculum: CUREs replaced existing parts of the curriculum. This meant that the CURE became standard operating procedure for a course rather than an "extra" thing to fit in.
  • Skill development: The CURE provided a productive environment for students to develop a range of career-relevant skills they could note on a resume or CV and was aligned with the established objectives for the course.
  • Relevance: The CURE was clearly relevant to students' career interests or daily lives. CUREs that were less relevant engendered less student interest and enthusiasm, which made it more difficult for the faculty to maintain their own interest and enthusiasm.

I (Abigail) am an ardent champion for CURE instruction and other forms of active learning, but it has been challenging to maintain my own interest, enthusiasm, and energy over the years. Other CURE enthusiasts have taken on leadership roles at the college, which are requiring them to spend their time and energy elsewhere. For CURE initiatives to be sustainable in the long term, there should be some mechanism for rotating or distributed leadership. This will help prevent the burnout that I have experienced by sharing the load across faculty.

We experienced three different tipping points. First, there was a tipping point in teaching an individual CURE. For instance, the CURE that is part of our introductory biology course and the UnPAK network became an integral part of the course with support from colleagues at other institutions who were experts in the research. They offered guidance, support, and mentorship, especially in trouble-shooting experiments and methods, which were important for sustaining the CURE within the biology course.

The second tipping point was in integrating CUREs across the curriculum. The tipping point here was when a sufficient number of faculty were motivated to involve students in doing research and found ways to accomplish it at a practical level. The CUREs that were sustained met the criteria above: feasible for students, feasible given the course context, and motivating for faculty and students because of the relevance.

We hope the final tipping point is happening now: distributing leadership of CUREs at the college. The NSF grant that supported the development of our CURE initiative enabled course buyouts for leading the initiative and developing and assessing the CUREs. Our heavy teaching loads make it impossible to sustain the workload and to find the time needed for further development and expansion of CUREs at the college. Administrative investment or fundraising support will be needed to make additional progress.

We have found that a number of faculty are interested, but they face challenges finding time and energy to develop a new CURE. Once they are developed, faculty buy-in at the course level has been sustained by ensuring the CUREs in each course fit well within the course. This allows the CURE to become the modus operandi for the course. Heavy teaching loads coupled with the lack of incentives for curricular innovation and for conducting research make it difficult to bring new faculty onboard. Because of these time constraints, it is unlikely that our initiative will expand further without funding for course buy-outs and faculty support.

Although our faculty have shifting teaching assignments, many have stayed teaching the course in which they integrated their CURE. We do not have support from teaching assistants, which is both an affordance and a barrier. In some ways, the absence of teaching assistants simplifies the process of teaching and evolving a CURE over time. However, it is also limiting because we are the only ones who are teaching our respective CUREs and none of our colleagues who teach other sections of the same course have chosen to teach our CUREs.

The research on the educational benefits of CUREs makes a compelling case for CUREs. We personally observed our students thrive in the CURE environment where they could showcase their scientific abilities. In our experience, students who blossom while doing research are often not the same students who earn straight A's in their coursework. Our projects afforded students opportunities to learn about cutting-edge techniques and concepts that might be missed in a more traditional course or lab. If we left the college, our CUREs would likely end because there are not other faculty who have picked up each of our CUREs to teach in their own sections. However, there are faculty at other institutions teaching similar CUREs and those would continue.

Advice for Implementation

In some ways, we were very ready to launch our CURE initiative. One of us was already teaching a CURE and another had done a project that had many of the elements of a CURE. In other ways, we had a lot to learn. For instance, grants management was new to us. While we were fortunate to have support from colleagues at other institutions, there was still a lot to learn. Course buy-out from the grant was critical to free up time not only for faculty who were developing and teaching CUREs, but also for managing the grant. Over the years of the grant, that bought-out time was spent taking care of many activities associated with improving teaching. Thus, when the grant ended, we experienced the "double whammy" of not having dedicated time for further CURE development and not having time to coordinate among faculty. We wish we had better anticipated certain costs, such as faculty benefits (which changed during the grant period) and that the college's marketing of our program has been more tightly coupled to college fundraising.

We recommend that faculty interested in developing CUREs at teaching-intensive setting like ours:

  • Select research topics that are tightly tied to their own previous research or to the research of a colleague whose job involves research. This would make the process of developing and trouble-shooting aspects of the research and getting access to research infrastructure more straightforward.
  • Carefully think through all of the costs, including more "hidden" costs that can change over time like faculty benefits. Get written agreements for how these costs will be paid if grants are funded.
  • Budget time for student workers. Time was often more precious to us than materials or equipment. Our students helped with developing protocols, trouble-shooting, preparing materials, and other tasks that needed to get done. It is important to note that CURE students also carried out trouble-shooting, protocol refinement, and other research-related tasks. The combination of CURE students doing this work in class and a student worker to help outside of class helped the instruction and the research progress more smoothly.
  • Plan to keep costs and infrastructure requirements low from the start. If most of the costs are related to development of the CURE rather than teaching it, it will be much easier to continue teaching it after the end of grant funding.