Initial Publication Date: April 1, 2016

Create an Inquiry-Rich Curriculum

The effect of faculty-mentored research on student persistence in STEM is well-documented, but student demand for these experiences typically exceeds institutional capacity. Embedding authentic research experiences in courses expands the number of students who can participate. The Capstone programs have developed a variety of ways to support and scaffold students into and through the research process. These different approaches reflect the culture, history, and personalities of each school. But all of the institutions have embedded inquiry-driven curricular elements to support student engagement in authentic research experiences. In many cases inquiry-driven curricular elements are incorporated as the best mechanism to achieve learning outcomes of a course, and these activities often prepare students for subsequent apprentice-based or dedicated mentored research experiences, such as a summer research internship or an honors thesis project.

Inevitably there will be trade-offs, but also synergies, associated with integrating research skills with course content. Faculty development activities are critical to support development of an inquiry-rich curriculum, in large part to help all faculty understand the benefits of integrating inquiry skills into science teaching and learning.

Design elements of inquiry-rich curricula

Inquiry-based teaching requires implementation of engaged pedagogical practices. Engaged pedagogies can help faculty spend time with students developing skills and allow students to be more independent in their learning of information. These activities give students experience with uncertainty and an opportunity to "ask the next question," which requires that they engage more critically with concepts and relationships.

In-class activities can be designed to develop a wide range of research skills, such as making observations, generating hypotheses, drawing conclusions from data, literature review, etc. These activities might be incorporated piecemeal into a course or might be the primary focus of an entire course. Such a course may try to help students gain skills in all areas of inquiry (from conception of an interesting question to writing a scientific article) or focus on a particular skill. Integrating lecture and lab in a course can be a better match to the way research is actually conducted in science.

Integrative learning across disciplines often incorporates development and application of inquiry skills. Developing courses around investigating interdisciplinary questions or problems has been successful in engaging students with STEM content.

Barnard College
Since the inception of the Manduca Project in 2008, faculty have successfully introduced student-defined experimental studies into laboratory courses (introductory biology, genetics, molecular biology, and animal physiology) and individual research projects.
Smith College
The Picker Engineering Program made Smith College the first women's college to offer a bachelor's degree in engineering sciences. Firmly grounded in its liberal arts context, students are taught to think in different ways that help them understand and contextualize engineering in the context of larger societal questions, culminating in a year-long applied capstone course in which students solve real-world problems with clients from government, industry, and nonprofit organizations.
Spelman College
Faculty across the STEM disciplines at Spelman have been supported during summers to develop interdisciplinary modules (e.g. "Using Dye-Sensitized Solar Cell to Learn Photosynthesis", "Model of the Neuron") that are used across several disciplines and courses (e.g., "Energy in Your Life") that integrate a variety of physical science concepts to understand biological phenomena.

Learning stages where students encounter inquiry skills

Offering students the opportunity to do authentic research in a course early in their undergraduate work can give them a meaningful experience to judge their propensity and interest in a given discipline. (Lindgren, 2010) But to do inquiry well, they will need multiple opportunities to practice and master these skills like any others.

Inquiry-based outreach programs provide high-impact training for pre-college science students and educators.

CUNY Hunter College
Hunter's molecular biology and biotechnology workshop has provided almost 250 high school and more than 40 middle school teachers with research concepts and lab experience, which they transmit to thousands of students each year.
Hope College
Hope's Center for Exploratory Learning provides the infrastructure and support for several outstanding K–12 STEM outreach programs. The outreach-focused activity began in partnership with the Hope Summer Science Camp program, which started more than fifteen years ago as a program for local K–5 students, and has expanded to include science academy programs for middle and high school students. The camps and academies are structured to maximize hands-on learning in a wide range of topics—for example, movie-making in lower grades and research in the local watershed for upper grades.

Pre-matriculation summer experiences offer an opportunity for students to get excited and to make connections with people, spaces, and resources.

Hope College
Hope's Day1 Research Community program engages first-year students in research experiences from the first day on campus. Some of these innovative programs include a pre-college research experience that begins one or two weeks before courses begin.

Some introductory courses are centered on scientific inquiry. Such courses include multi-week laboratory projects where students generate and test hypotheses with guidance from faculty and instructors. Students write about these projects in the format of a scientific journal article, or they may present a poster in a public campus forum. The student work on these final products reflects authentic lessons about the nature of experimentation, especially the critical role of controls in data analysis.

Xavier University of Louisiana
Xavier has newly developed competency-based freshmen level courses, Biol 1210L (Foundations of Biology I) and Biol 1220L (Foundations of Biology II). In Foundations I, the focus is on various activities (experiments, reading and analyzing articles) to understand and apply the scientific method, learning how to best organize, plot and analyze student-generated data, biochemistry-centered activities (molar, percent solutions, etc) and biophysics (circuitry, connection to heart and nervous system). In Foundations II, the emphasis is on further honing quantitative skills and statistics, along with analyzing new data and passages.
Smith College
The sciences at Smith have made an effort to broaden the number of research opportunities available to students, particularly in the first two years, through new interdisciplinary course-based research experience (CBRE) offerings that engage students with research challenges, including questions related to the modelling and treatment of human disease, oscillations of biological clocks, and the impact of mercury contamination in local ecosystems, among others.

Inquiry and research experiences incorporated into general education level courses provide an excellent way for students to become literate about the scientific process.

Hope College
General Education Math and Science (GEMS) courses were developed in 1996 to enable all students to learn science and mathematics by doing science and mathematics. These interdisciplinary courses are designed by teams of faculty to build a mathematical and scientific understanding of the world. Most of the GEMS courses have elements of STEM research embedded within them.

Empirical research conducted in intermediate-level classes gives students an opportunity to build on research topics pursued by the instructor, which may be a part of that scholar's ongoing research program.

Swarthmore College
At Swarthmore, authentic inquiry occurs at the intermediate level in biology, chemistry, computer science, mathematics, and psychology. The curricular structure allows faculty to incorporate themes from their own research into their intermediate-level courses. In addition to building student inquiry skills, this strategy supports faculty to blend their scholarship and teaching interests.

An advanced course may be in the form of a capstone research seminar focused on working with a faculty member on his or her research. (Swarthmore, Hope's environmental science and engineering design courses.) In some cases an advanced course may build on model systems introduced earlier in the curriculum, such as Barnard's Manduca curriculum that starts with behavioral observations of caterpillars in an introductory lab and culminates with sophisticated senior thesis research in functional genomics and neurophysiology.

Several institutions have revamped courses throughout their science curricula to feature inquiry-based learning experiences (Bryn Mawr, Swarthmore, Grinnell) These institutional efforts can be challenging, yet rewarding to implement, and require support for faculty development and meetings. Regular informal meetings among faculty from multiple departments can be especially useful as described by Carleton.

Scaffolding for student development as scientists

Courses may intentionally prepare students for summer research experiences.

Barnard College
Barnard's Research Apprenticeship Seminar (RAS) introduces first-year students to Barnard's science culture, and the Research Methods Seminar for sophomores prepares students about to embark on experiences in faculty research labs.

Sequenced courses and activities designed to support student development through various research experiences.

Spelman College
As participants in the Spelman Mentored and Research Trained (SMART) Scholars Program, students engage in a focused multi-year development program. SMART Scholars conduct biomedical/behavioral research with the mentor/project of their choosing to get analytical and lab experience in various areas of research.

Research-driven coursework provides professional development for students, helping them prepare for graduate work or as professionals in technical fields.

Spelman College
At Spelman, chemistry and biochemistry majors attend two year-long seminars as part of the Spelman MILE, which include developmental activities aimed at professional and research preparation.

Courses with a significant inquiry component may contribute to faculty scholarship and provide opportunities for students to present their research. In some cases students are publishing in-house journals, contributing to peer-reviewed scientific publications, or presenting work at national or regional scientific conferences.

Grinnell College
Students in two sections of Grinnell's research-based introductory course (BIO 150 Introduction to Biological Inquiry) publish the results of their research projects online in Pioneering Neuroscience and Tillers introductory biology journals.
Smith College
Through the Course-Based Research Experiences (CBRE) program, Smith College students have presented their work locally and at national or regional scientific conferences.

Evaluating effectiveness

A course may expect students to demonstrate achievement of a desired competency (quantitative skills, writing proficiency, etc.) as a means to understanding the impact of an inquiry-driven course element. Creating a poster or presentation to communicate their results not only helps students to demonstrate their gains, it also helps develop additional skills that will help them be successful in STEM majors.

Surveys such as the Classroom Undergraduate Research Survey (CURE) measure changes in student attitude, skill, and aspirations before and after participation. Assessment of courses in which an inquiry project is a dominant component indicates that in many cases student-reported outcomes are on par with outcomes reported in the Survey of Undergraduate Research (SURE), an instrument used predominantly for dedicated summer research experiences.

Tracking student success can help faculty shape an effective curriculum. Analyses of persistence or engagement (curricular choices/pathways) in the major based on institutional data about participation in undergraduate research (dedicated) or in a CRE or revised course with new pedagogy can be instructive.

End-of-course surveys further show that students enjoy their experiences in inquiry-rich courses.

Moreover, these kinds of inquiry-based approaches can also yield benefit to the faculty and institution.

Smith College

At Smith College, we have found a variety of positive outcomes for students and faculty as well as the institution associated with our summer research fellowship program as well as our newer course-based research experiences.


Classroom Undergraduate Research Survey (CURE)

Lindgren, C. (2010). Teaching by Doing: Turning a Biology Curriculum Upside Down, Chronicle of Higher Education.

Survey of Undergraduate Research (SURE)

Lopatto, D. (2004). Survey of Undergraduate Research Experiences (SURE): First Findings. Cell Biology Education. 2004 Winter; 3(4): 270–277.

Brewer and Smith (Eds) (2011). Vision and Change in Undergraduate Biology Education: A Call to Action. Washington D.C.: American Association for the Advancement of Science. Accessed via Vision and (February 2016).