Authentic Inquiry and Research-like Experiences

Integrating Authentic Inquiry and Research-like Experiences to Engage Students

Activities that include authentic inquiry and research or research-like experiences are high impact practices and can bolster student engagement and promote self-efficacy. CURE survey findings presented by David Lopatto, at the June 2014 workshop corroborate other study findings that students who participate in research-like experiences experience higher learning games than those who do not (see his presentation slides (PowerPoint 2007 (.pptx) 166kB Jun24 14)).

Beyond increased learning gains, authentic inquiry and research-like experiences can

  • introduce students to fields they may not have otherwise explored
  • lead to increased retention in STEM field majors
  • increase graduation in STEM field majors
  • enhance engagement in Honors and LSAMP REU summer programs, and
  • increase the number of students transferring to complete advanced studies and/or career placement (see, for example, the SOLARIS program at El Paso Community College).

Traditional Research Experiences between Students and Research Mentors

Traditional research experiences can be implemented as summer programming (e.g. through REUs, internships, or other programs), or as either extracurricular or for-credit options during the school year. Pairing students with a research mentor can aid in developing their skills and make a strong connection between students and their mentors.

Incorporating Authentic Inquiry and Research-like Experiences into Coursework

Starting small is a great way to ease the transition to utilizing research-like and authentic inquiry into the classroom. Rather than overhauling an entire course, try changing one activity (or, if you already incorporate these activities, try encouraging colleagues to do so) to try it out. Gradual inclusion of these methods and focusing on how they can contribute to learning gains can also be less intimidating. In some cases, faculty want to teach and not do research; for these faculty, create a "jogger's lane" versus a "sprinter's lane" and have them consider that research is a tool for teaching and that research-like strategies are tools for helping students achieve competencies and learning outcomes related to analysis, critical thinking, group work, communication, quantitative skills, and, potentially, experience with instrumentation. Specific examples for how to integrate authentic inquiry and research-like experiences into the classroom offered by workshop participants include:

  • Incorporate case studies into class, perhaps once a week, to help students connect what they are learning with real-world applications.
  • Use proven techniques, but let students choose what samples they get to test, etc.
    • e.g. in a biology course, the gene a student is going to clone is the same, but the students get to pick the type of plant they want to work with. It leaves it open-ended for them to develop.
  • Try flipping the classroom - have students listen to the lectures online prior to coming to class. Then, in lab, they can focus on doing the "hands-on" activities based on the content they learned.
  • Cover content on one day a week and then use labs to focus more on the content covered the previous lecture.
  • The nature of science, especially in intro courses, is an intriguing topic to cover. Students do not understand how much we don't know about a particular aspect of the field and think we know all of the facts. So getting students to talk about the unknowns and discuss potential situations (and their drawbacks) to complex issues, these types of inquiries can get students excited about the unknown and foster their curiosity.
  • Rewrite/re-frame the course competencies to include a research experience, including problem-solving, critical thinking, analysis of data, etc.
  • Build students' writing skills by having them write up an analysis of what they did in their research experience. This can be challenging, as many students are in need of building their skills in reading and writing. Use these experiences to build these skills by having students produce a research paper, a poster, etc.

If you have a drive and the opportunity to implement these experiences at a larger scale, consider designing a final project or entire course around service learning or independent research experiences. These can lead to opportunities in building students' data collection and analysis skills as well as their communication skills, if they are required to write up their results and/or present them to the community. They can also be used to build interdisciplinary thinking and can give students experience with team work. All of these are important skills, and if successfully built, can lead to their success in the workforce -- both in getting a job and advancing in that job. Further, these sorts of experiences can help engage students in their community and help bridge what they learn in class with solving real-world issues. See more about Engaging Students in STEM with Societal Issues.

Explore some ideas for integrating research-like experiences into the classroom shared by presenters at the June and November 2014 workshops.

Challenges and Constraints

Integrating these experiences, in most cases, cannot be done without challenges. Workshop participants identified a number of challenges and constraints to incorporating authentic inquiry and research-like experiences into courses. The most commonly cited of these were finding time, space, and funding to implement these methods - both for faculty and students - as well as getting faculty and student engagement and buy-in. In particular they identified the following:

Perception and Buy-In

  • Faculty might push back or be resistant to change. In addition, many faculty choose positions at two-year colleges because they want to teach, not do research
  • Student perception; students might push back or be resistant to change
  • Student engagement– Helping students see relevance and applicability to their programs of study. Experience cognitive dissonance and failure with limited frustration.
  • Fear of failure [of implementing these activities successfully].
  • Coming up good assessment tools (pre- and post-tests), other course surveys, use CURE/SURE

Time, Space, and Funding Challenges

  • Teaching loads at two year colleges are very heavy and it can be difficult to find time to do things that are outside of the curriculum
  • Community colleges have huge lists of competencies that we are required to address and assess in classes; so adding these experiences or re-framing activities presents a challenge
  • Campuses that do not have lab space or, even where campuses have these spaces, the spaces are usually booked with traditional classroom time and finding time to schedule for lab work is difficult
  • Non-traditional student population - competing demands on students' time such as family/childcare and full-time job; transportation issues; small amount of money for under-represented minority (URM) students and not enough money for students that are not in the URM population.

Getting Faculty Buy-in

Changing one's course and/or getting other faculty buy-in can be tough, especially given that many already have large teaching loads and other commitments. In addition, some faculty may be more comfortable with and want to focus on teaching rather than research - this may be personal preference or could be a result of the expectations of their institution (or both). In these cases, it may be helpful to note that the goals of integrating these experiences are not getting published in Science, but rather, in helping students get the skills they need to make them marketable in the workforce, get hired, and keep a job. Another potential sticking point is that some instructors, as great as they are, have been doing things a certain way for years and may get defensive about changing their activities, making this is a delicate subject to approach. Thus, demonstrating the relevance and success of these experiences and getting faculty buy-in is an important step in integrating them into the curriculum. Also, while many likely will experience failure at doing these activities, especially if they are new to the methods, try to turn these into teaching moments and opportunities for students to brainstorm why things may not have worked as planned and suggest improvements for next time. This engages them in problem-solving and also gives positive ways of handing when things don't go as expected.

Considering Competencies

Meeting competency requirements set by institutions can present a challenge to adding or changing curricular materials, especially at two-year colleges, where the degree program is designed to be completed in two rather than four years. However, authentic inquiry and research-like experiences address a large set of competencies - they may just need to be re-framed to highlight how they are met. Competencies naturally offered by these experiences include:

  • Hypothesis testing–asking questions
  • Problem solving assignment/activity
  • Analysis -- Why did we arrive at these results? Why did this fail? What would we do differently?
  • Communicating methods and results - both oral and written
  • Critical reading/literacy
  • Research inquiries/processes
  • STEM fields/career exploration *Field trips or guest speakers from STEM fields
  • Opportunities for engagement: REU's, internships, Honors Program
As you think about re-framing competencies, think about how to balance course requirements and competencies without adding a lot more content -- design research-like experiences and inquiry opportunities to help students meet existing learning goals rather than trying to squeeze more into the course.

Program-level Support

Getting buy in from department faculty can help initiate incorporation of these activities at the course level, leading to data and outcomes you can document and present to the administration (e.g. increased student recruitment and retention, positive feedback from students, successes in workforce transfer). if successful at the department level, try expanding on possible activities by getting administrative buy in. For instance, you may be able to lobby for hiring support staff or for release time or overload pay to be able to develop these activities and research-like experiences. There's also potential for representatives from your institution to go to conferences to learn more about pedagogy and research to be able to incorporate in our classrooms and to encourage other faculty to do so. Highlight facilities and how they can be used for research, which could attract students, especially if it can be coupled from a summer bridge program. It may also be possible to start a program with a required orientation course or an honors course that incorporates these experiences. These can be an opportunity to highlight scientific/inquiry-based activities to enhance learning and strengthen skills needed for advanced interdisciplinary study. They also have the benefit of potentially creating a strong cohort of students who can support one another as they proceed through their coursework.

Assessing Success of Implementations

Research indicates that these experiences are high impact practices that lead to increases in student learning gains and confidence. But how do you measure the success of your particular implementation; and what data can you use to market these practices to department faculty and the administration? There are a few mechanisms you can use to gauge success of these experiences. The CURE Survey can be used to measure student experience related to research or research-like courses. In addition, query your alumni -- how many were successful in getting a job after graduation; were the skills they learned during their coursework and research seen as beneficial in getting a job or advancing in that job? For example, have they demonstrated competency in communication to both people in their field as well as people who are not scientists; have they learned how to effectively and clearly talk about what they are doing? In order to be effective, it's not enough to do great science - one must also be able to talk about what they are doing to non-scientists (and this is across disciplines). Did the experience help build their ability to interpret data; to be able to take the data and turn it into something that they can explain to someone else? Many students like to collect data, but it can be difficult for them to explain what they learned from the data. At a higher level, get students to create their own research project questions and plan and run with it without much faculty guidance. These are high-level skills and can help students feel ownership over their project.

Related Resources

Resources on Undergraduate Research

Go to /sp/library/studentresearch/index.html
Undergraduate Research
Learn what defines undergraduate research, explore why research enriches the learning experience, and delve into methods to engage students in research. This module emphasizes that research experiences take many forms, including class-based activities (naturalistic observation, surveys, quantitative writing assignments, experiments), class-based research projects (term papers, service learning, community-based and campus-based learning), and capstone experiences (senior and honors theses). Also, view examples of student research.

Go to /sage2yc/undergrad_research/index.html
Undergraduate Research with Two-year College Students
This suite of webpages from Supporting and Advancing Geoscience Education in Two-year Colleges (SAGE 2YC) addresses the particular issues and concerns of implementing student research with students at or from two-year colleges. The site tackles issues of doing research at 2YCs, 2YC/4YC Collaborations, and Solutions to Common Challenges. It also includes a collection of geoscience teaching activities that involve inquiry as well as profiles written by faculty at 2YCs who do geoscience research with their students.

Go to /NAGTWorkshops/undergraduate_research/workshop_2014/index.html
Undergraduate Research in Earth Science Courses: Engaging students in the first two years (On the Cutting Edge program) This workshop was held in July 2014 and was designed to explore the many ways that authentic research experiences can be embedded in introductory science courses. This followed the 2012 recommendations from the President's Council of Advisors on Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics that advocated replacing standard laboratory courses with discovery-based research courses. The agenda includes examples of inquiry-based teaching, primarily from geoscience and environmental science disciplines.

Go to /NAGTWorkshops/undergraduate_research/index.html
Undergraduate Research as Teaching Practice (On the Cutting Edge program) This On the Cutting Edge module represents an aggregation of community knowledge, experience, and resources that can encourage and support undergraduate research across the geoscience curriculum. There is help for integrating Inquiry and Discovery-based Projects into Intro Classes and a set of case studies at the introductory level for conducting research with students. Cutting Edge is also hosting a workshop this fall aimed at incorporating research in the first two years, which will include activities and ideas.


Go to /lsamp/workshops/june2014/index.html
LSAMP June 2014 meeting on research and research-like experiences in science courses was held at Grinnell College. The meeting recognized research experiences are essential to helping students develop an understanding of the scientific method and to engage them in critical thinking and problem solving skills. Involving students in research can: help students learn content and skills, promotes cognitive development, increases self-efficacy, and can increase STEM participation and retention. Participants discussed how research-like experiences could be implemented at their campuses.

Go to /sp/library/twd/index.html
Teaching with Data from Pedagogy in Action. Students generating their own data or working with authentic data sets is a strong strategy to get students involved in research-like experiences in the classroom. Of particular interest, How to Teach with Data presents ideas to incorporate data in the classroom, including a rich description of research strategies that get students involved in research-like experiences. Tips on designing assignments can help you get started.

Go to /exploring_genomics/index.html
Exploring Genomics Data from Genomics Explorers. The Genomics Explorers provide an iterative way for students to choose strategies for asking and addressing biologically interesting questions using a range of genomics tools.

Go to /genomics/i3u/index.html
Inquiry-Based Integrated Instructional Units from Teaching Genomics at Small Colleges Making use of genomics to address various topics in a guided laboratory experience.

Go to /NAGTWorkshops/earlycareer/research/Hancock.html
Incorporating in-class research projects example from On the Cutting Edge. Greg Hancock provides detailed information about how he incorporates in-class research projects into his geology courses. Listen to Greg offer advice about making this research project approach successful.

Resources Related to Workshop Presentations

Resources related to Craig Oglvie's talk: Engaging all undergraduate science students in course-based research projects

Go to /NAGTWorkshops/climatechange/activities/30392.html
Carbon Footprint Exercise (Cinzia Cervato, Adam Sanford, and Karly Wortmann, ISU)
This is a three-step assignment for students in introductory geoscience that asks them to calculate their carbon footprint during one specific week. The goal of the assignment is to increase student awareness of the various sources of energy consumption and of the impact that each one of them is having on the atmospheric carbon budget.

Resources related to Jim Swartz's talk: Drinking Water Analysis as an Example of a Research-like Project

Go to /NAGTWorkshops/undergraduate_research/casestudy/59586.html
Drinking Water Quality: An Interdisciplinary Research Experience of Introductory Geology and Chemistry Classes (Robert Shuster, UNO)
The goals of this project are to introduce the students to the scientific method, get them to actually "do" relevant science, and show how science affects their lives.

Go to /NAGTWorkshops/undergraduate_research/workshop_2014/activities/84910.html
Groundwater Wells (Cinzia Cervato, ISU)
At the beginning of the semester, teams of 4 students identify a research project that uses these facilities. The students will collect data, analyze them, and draw conclusions over a 6-week period. Teams present their findings on posters in the lab and at a public event where a team of judges evaluate their work using a rubric.

  • An inquiry-based drinking water analysis module called "What's in your water besides H2O?" is used in Chemistry 210 at Grinnell College. The syllabus provides an example for a local, case-based approach to including content, technical and skills-based learning in a inquiry-based approach. This module was designed by Luther Erickson and taught in 2014 by Leslie Lyons and Lee Sharpe Chem 210 Syllabus (Acrobat (PDF) 2.2MB Oct31 14)

  • Drinking water is the focus of an interdisciplinary set of sequenced, interactive activities used in Geology 102 at Carleton College. Here the activity was part of an initiative called 'Hometown Project' that focused on local issues. This syllabus is from 2008, however the structure could be used to build activities on a variety of topics. Geology 120 drinking water syllabus (Acrobat (PDF) 634kB Oct31 14)

Resources related to Cailin Huyck Orr's talk: Using Data to Create Research-like Experiences

Go to /NAGTWorkshops/data_models/index.html
Teaching with Data, Simulations and Models With the addition of computers in many classrooms and laboratories, faculty have unprecedented opportunity to create innovative learning experiences by bringing real-world data sets and models and simulations into the classroom. This site provides resources to help faculty use these resources effectively and easily, and contains access to teaching materials and tips from the classroom and literature about the supporting pedagogy.

Go to /sp/library/twd/index.html
Teaching With Data (Nathan Grawe, Carleton College)This page summarizes strategies for teaching with data, some of the main arguments for teaching this way and considers activity and assessment design.

Go to /sp/library/datasim/index.html
Teaching with Data Simulation (Danielle Dupuis and Joan Garfield, University of Minnesota) This resource was developed as part of the Consortium for the Advancement of Undergraduate Statistics Education. Teaching with data simulations means giving students opportunities to simulate data in order to answer a particular research question or solve a statistical problem.Simulations can involve physical materials (drawing items from a bag, tossing coins, sampling candies) or involve generating data on the computer (drawing samples from a population or generating data based on a probability model).

Go to http://serc.carleton.edu/introgeo/models/index.html
Teaching with Models (Bob MacKay, Clark College) This overview page considers different types of models, including conceptual and physical models in addition to numeric models, and how they can be used in the classroom.

Below are a collection of resources related to providing research or research-like experiences to undergraduate students during a science course. Research experiences are essential to helping students develop an understanding of the scientific method and to engage them in critical thinking and problem solving skills. Involving students in research can: help students learn content and skills, promotes cognitive development, increases self-efficacy, and can increase STEM participation and retention.

More Research in the Classroom Ideas from Pedagogy in Action

More pedagogic guidance for incorporating research-like experiences into the classroom:

Research Beyond the Class Period

Go to /NAGTWorkshops/departments/recruiting/beyond.html
Beyond the Classroom from Building Strong Geoscience Departments. Faculty examples of how they got their students involved in authentic research and why this model attracts more students to STEM.

Go to /NAGTWorkshops/earlycareer2010/undergrad_researchfund.html
Undergraduate Project Funding Sources from On the Cutting Edge. Often, the lack of financial support can make the possibility of student research difficult. The Early Career workshop provides some funding ideas to help get students involved in research.

More Lab, Field, and Summer Research Ideas from Pedagogy in Action

More pedagogic guidance for getting students involved in research during lab, field, or summer experiences:

Additional resources outside of SERC: