Biology in Practice: Moving Towards a Research-based Major

Sarah C. R. Elgin, Washington University in St Louis, Shan Hays, Western Colorado University, Vida Mingo, Columbia College (SC), Christopher Shaffer, Washington University in St Louis, Jason Williams, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory


This program centers on teaching biology through research experiences and practical examples of current issues. We propose alternative implementations, suggestions and insights for achieving a research-centered biology major at institutions of higher learning outside the context of a Research I university. A critical component of any implementation will be a freshman research lab that not only provides the typical "overview" of the sub-disciplines within biology but does so by engaging teams of students in research (for example, a field study utilizing genomic analysis of student-selected organisms (Hyman et al., 2019, CourseSource. ). On a practical level, this can be accomplished by a stand-alone course or by utilizing the lab of existing freshman courses. Within this research-centered major, all following upper-level labs would similarly focus on a research project, not only to help students develop their foundational knowledge, habits of mind, and skills using needed tools for investigation, but also to enable them to make meaningful contributions to the science literature through their research. Upper level research experiences can be developed within the labs of existing courses (e.g. biochemistry, ecology, etc.) or can be centered around the research interests of faculty, building vertically integrated student teams that persist over the sophomore to senior years. Both approaches develop peer-instruction opportunities and both culminate in team-based "capstone" projects and/or a senior thesis. All students participate in regularly scheduled (annual or semester) symposia to communicate their work to other students and faculty and to allow summative assessment of their progress towards the learning goals. In addition, a well-designed program specifies curriculum milestones that explicitly develop humanistic and meta knowledge, including written and oral communication skills. The humanistic knowledge milestones emphasize the importance of students forming their own questions in ways that are relevant to themselves, their cultures, and their communities. Meta knowledge milestones promote the development of scientific efficacy and independent critical reasoning, challenging students to reflect on their work, seek out and incorporate expertise, and value equity and inclusion.Detailed Description »

Goals of the Program

A central feature is a two-semester freshman-level course that provides a strong foundation for a full biology program that vertically integrates Course-based Undergraduate Research Experiences (CUREs) at all levels, a long-standing goal of the 2011 report from AAAS, "Vision and Change in Undergraduate Biology Education," that called for new instructional practices to be widely implemented. This program is built on the mantra that "the biology we teach should reflect the biology we practice" (Ledbetter, 2012, J Undergrad Neurosci Educ Fall 2012;11(1):A22-6.) Here, we are expanding on the core competencies and instructional practices recommended in Vision and Change to integrate humanistic, meta knowledge, and foundational knowledge into course-based undergraduate research experiences. The final goal is to create a student-centered, research driven pedagogy model where students not only gain practical knowledge of the practice of science and develop an understanding of the foundational knowledge of science, but also come to understand their own place within a community of practice where their contributions are communicated, recognized and appreciated.

Learning Outcomes

  • Students develop scientific self-efficacy and independence to move forward in analyzing questions of interest using scientific approaches.
  • Students can carry out the process of science, including the generation of hypotheses by refining broad questions into targeted questions both requiring and accessible to data acquisition; the development and execution of experiments with appropriate controls; and the analysis of data using appropriate tools in the process of coming to a defensible conclusion.
  • Students can appropriately use software, databases, and visualization to explore their data and communicate their findings.
  • Students can communicate to diverse audiences, both scientific and community-based, in written and oral formats.
  • Students learn to shape their questions and approaches to problem solving through an equitable and inclusive understanding of local, regional, and global interests.

Assessing Program Outcomes

Assessing the impact of a research-centered biology major will require a long-term effort. While one can see an impact on the participation in senior capstone experiences, whether a research-based thesis, investigative team effort, or the like, it will take several years to see impacts on factors like recruitment, retention, and graduation rates. Appropriate assessments for achievement of four-year learning goals will need to be developed, but can follow from assessments of student learning and student attitudes carried out each semester.

While our learning outcomes delineate the goals for the program as a whole, the need for formative evaluation during each semester should not be neglected. Students need feedback, throughout the semester, to catch misconceptions and/or sloppy work early in the process, and to feel that they are "on the right track" to meet their own personal goals in a given course. In this context, we advocate that all Research Lab Courses be given for a letter grade, not pass/fail, to provide more nuanced information on student effort; this will benefit both the student and the reviewer of student success.

There are multiple ways to provide formative assessment outlined below. Some of these suggestions are suitable for individual responses, while others are suitable for a group lab report. We avoid timed assessments, as these create barriers for certain subgroups of students. We aim for assessments that are "open book" and allow or encourage the student to utilize multiple resources, including available literature and data bases and discussion with peers and experts, but require students to exercise their own analytical skills. In many cases the same assessment can be done iteratively (e.g. have students rewrite and resubmit a written assignment), providing students opportunities to edit and critique their own (or other students') presentation and/or scientific writing.

  1. Mastery of new techniques: request a written description of the process, of the basic principles underlying the tool (e.g., the algorithm, the optics etc.), of the results from a "problem set" that walks through or simulates the process, of the results of a trial run with a known sample (give each student a different sample), or of first results with experimental material, assessing consistency of results.
  2. Mastery of a new protocol:  require a written report of the outcomes of the first experiment, including internal checks on the consistency of the data; this might include an oral presentation for class critique and feedback.  Stress clarity of exposition and identification of problems rather than quality of results at this stage.
  3. Consideration of alternatives:  class discussion on what could go wrong and/or the limits of the experimental design, considering alternative approaches that may be appropriate; a one-page written summary of important points could be requested.
  4. Lab notebook: students should be given clear expectations for entries into their lab notebook, with checks (random/sporadic or scheduled), carried out.
  5. Lab meetings:  each student comes prepared with 3-4 PPT slides to discuss an aspect of the work that is troublesome for her/him - internal inconsistency, no clear resolution, etc. - for trouble-shooting and input by a larger group of students.  (For larger classes, this can work well by forming smaller break-out sessions with ~5 team presentations, with all team members and a TA/faculty member as responders).
  6. Reading and analysis of the original or popular literature:  there are many variations on how to divide up the work for oral presentation.  Require a written response delineating the "big idea" and suggesting the next experiment.
  7. Experimental design:  as problems are encountered, have a group discuss these, brain-storming possible solutions.  Challenge students to consider the strengths and weaknesses of the suggestions.  How can we arrive at an internally consistent data set?  A short written report can be requested.
  8. Peer review of the written assignments can help both the author and the reviewer, as well as decreasing the load for faculty and teaching assistants.

Summative assessment for a given course will include a written and/or oral report by the student/team on their work for the semester, potentially presented as a poster. Summative assessment for the student in this major will include a senior thesis or equivalent project report plus participation in an undergraduate research symposium using poster or oral presentation.

For an example of a specific rubric see  Appendix 4 from Shapiro et al, JOURNAL OF MICROBIOLOGY & BIOLOGY EDUCATION, December 2015, p. 186-197.


Demonstrative Program Product

Program Catalog Descriptions:

Research-Oriented Biology Major Track

The courses of this program are Course-based Undergraduate Research Experiences (CUREs) in which students experience the process of scientific discovery as contributing members of research teams. Each CURE has a different research focus, so the collection of courses in toto covers the breadth of biology subjects, reflecting expertise of departmental faculty members. The courses iteratively build on one another over the four-year program to train the students in the process of science and to develop the students' proficiency and expertise in:

  1. understanding the ethical responsibilities of scientists in their approach to problem solving, shaped by an equitable and inclusive understanding of local, regional, and global interests;
  2. understanding the ethical responsibilities of scientists in maintaining integrity of data and using data to support inferences/conclusions;
  3. asking meaningful scientific questions;
  4. developing hypotheses;
  5. designing experiments to test the hypotheses;
  6. analyzing data quantitatively and computationally using bioinformatics tools or mathematical modeling software to visualize, interpret, expand, or refine their data sets;
  7. documenting research accomplishments in lab notebooks and by synthesizing results into oral presentations and written reports;
  8. being mindful of the scientific community, including reading the scientific literature, attending seminars and meetings (e.g. undergraduate research symposium and, where possible, local meetings), and talking with colleagues; and
  9. communicating research ideas to diverse audiences, both scientific and community-based.


Learning Outcomes Knowledge Matrix

The goal of this program is to engage students in the process of science through actively engaging them in research as early as possible and throughout  the curriculum. The matrix below illustrates how learning outcomes map to foundational, meta, and humanistic knowledge. These outcomes can be paired with assessments and then mapped to specific activities and topics.


Learning Outcome Foundational Knowledge Humanistic Knowledge Meta Knowledge
Students develop the scientific self-efficacy and independence to move forward in analyzing questions of interest using scientific approaches. Students develop technical competence in using scientific protocols and methodology and an awareness of the supporting scientific literature. Students see themselves as scientists. Students discern how scientific approaches can be applied to problems relevant to them and their communities. They understand the role of collaboration in science and have strategies to avoid the potential pitfalls of bias, exclusion, and inequity.  Students understand the need to be self-directed in developing new solutions and hypotheses and have strategies for seeking broader inputs and overcoming obstacles.
Students can carry out the process of science, including the generation of hypotheses by refining broad questions into targeted questions both requiring and accessible to data acquisition; the development and execution of experiments with appropriate controls; and the analysis of data using appropriate tool in the process of coming to a defensible conclusion. Students understand the process of data collection and reporting. Students understand scientific terminology and the proper use of experimental apparatus to collect data. Students have an appreciation of the evidence needed to support their hypotheses. Students identify ethical obligations when developing experimental design (e.g. stakeholders, ownership). They understand how scientific communities develop ethical protocols.  They apply ethical practice in all aspects of their works and understand the importance of maintaining the integrity  of data. Students develop judgement skills needed to choose and apply protocols and methodologies. They understand the need to look broadly for applicable resources, and seek additional expertise and collaboration as needed, recognizing the power of  dialogue.  Through reflection they can refine their approaches when they encounter failures (troubleshooting).
Students can appropriately use software, databases, and visualization to explore their data and communicate their results. Students have competence in working with the computational methods of modern biology and can apply appropriate statistics to determine both the consistency of data and test the sensitivity of the system. Students will vary in the abilities but are guided in moving past the "phobia" of integrating mathematics, statistics, and computation into their work. Students understand competency not as needing to acquire every ability, but in being able to solve the most commonly encountered challenges and in being able to talk with experts in the field.
Students can communicate to diverse audiences, scientific or community-based, in written and oral formats. Students understand the necessity of writing and oral presentation skills both to communicate results and to be considered for funding (i.e. communicate with scientific peers) AND to communicate with the public, which ultimately funds their research (i.e. NIH, NSF). Students see themselves as communicators for science and have developed communication styles which help them to relate to their own community. Students strive to understand the historical context of the audiences they communicate and collaborate with.  Students are able to communicate their science with mutual respect for their values and their audience's values. Students appreciate the diversity of communities and life experiences that inform the audiences they communicate science to. They can identify with the concerns and contexts of different communities and develop appropriate strategies for communication.
Students learn to shape their questions and approaches to problem solving through an equitable and inclusive understanding of local, regional, and global interests. Students are able to develop their own research topics in a way and at a scale that matches their interests, abilities, and resources. Students view science as an activity that is a part of rather than divorced from personal and community concerns.

Students reflect on how the knowledge and concerns of others inform their choice of approaches, their use of methods, and their communication of conclusions.



  • Aligning with institutional mission/s and context/s:
    • Institution-specific:  research experiences can be developed within the courses faculty currently teach, or be centered around faculty research interests.  In all cases, one will want to build on the institutional mission, current resources and strengths, and faculty interests.
  • Engaging college/university leadership and faculty buy-in:
    • Start dialogue with other faculty to build a community (apply for a communications grant).
    • Develop programmatic/administrative assessments to address concerns at that level (recruitment, retention in STEM, retention to graduation) and/or convince leadership by using literature: build the argument so colleagues can use the material in their attempts to implement in different departments or at different institutions.
    • Overcoming inertia: we need to provide sufficient incentives for faculty to adopt this approach, such that they are willing to modify lab courses that they have developed and used for many years to include a research component- citing literature, providing examples, would be a good place to start here.
    • The real issue is instructional time:  we need to convince faculty that given computer-based resources we can shift to less lecture and more lab.  (Note that research will be part of the letter-grade course, so it will provide (full?) teaching credit.)
  • Enlisting co-designers, partners, and stakeholders among the faculty, staff and potentially the students and alumni of the home department and other units:
    • Start dialogue with other faculty to build a community (apply for a communication grant).
  • Resources and structures including funding, policies:
    • The more we can provide examples of concrete, implementable course structures, the easier it will be for faculty to implement this program (perhaps initially as alternative courses; for example, research as an alternative to standard freshman lab) without requiring large amounts of supplemental time or money to develop the courses themselves
    • Potential issues:
      • Will lab costs be greater using this approach? Perhaps, but this is the reason that we are stressing computer/ bioinformatics or field work approaches.  There still could be an access issue for students that don't have (good enough) computers.  Space will still be necessary for students to do work on-campus.
      • Space constraints? If the school has space for labs normally, there should be space for the lab work for these courses, but it will involve repurposing for these courses, with the possibility of time being involved to switch out lab materials between courses.  "Research space" might also be used, but this might not exist to much of an extent (as actual space or as space available to a substantial number of undergrads).
      • Prepping for courses: Initial investment of time will be the biggest hurdle and may require investment by the school (release time) or a support network of faculty who already have implemented at their schools. Prepping for research-focused labs can be time-consuming on a daily basis, and this will need to be addressed in some manner. To the extent possible, prepping should be a student activity.
  • Exploring potential and planning for scaling internally and externally:
    • Internal scaling: initially, it would be easiest for schools to fit these courses into their existing lab structures in terms of space and scheduling.  This assumes that every student takes eight semesters/12 quarters of biology labs over their time at school.  If this is not true, then a school would need to start with some gaps in the curriculum and then scale up to provide a lab for every student every semester.  If faculty and administration perceive that the existing courses are working well, it is more likely that resources would be made available for such scaling. Otherwise, internal scaling might involve generating more courses with smaller enrollments.  Whether or not this is possible depends on the institution and a myriad of groups competing for resources and FTE.  Alternatively, research projects that readily adapt to participation by large numbers of students should be considered.
    • External scaling / broad communication of ideas:
      • First publish in figshare and then create a meeting report for Life Science Education. Seek partners for LSE-RCN - there are several groups interested in teaching through CUREs.
      • Consider funding mechanisms such as the NSF RCN-UBE); this is appropriate for programs that need a long-term approach (2-3 years) or a group of schools that want to work together. This could be a useful approach for building and maintaining the dialogue we have started here.


Detailed Description »