Finding the Cure

Shepherding Classroom-based Research Experience in Colleges and High Schools 

Finding the Cure text

By Ed Moorhouse

The value a student can find in doing research at the undergraduate level cannot be understated. It leads to academic growth and can present greater opportunities in the job market and for higher learning in the pursuit of advanced degrees.

But not all students are presented with the opportunity to do research.

“The problem becomes numbers,” says Ursinus College Professor of Biology Rebecca Roberts. “Not all colleges can support all students in faculty research labs to get that experience.”

Enter CUREs. A Course-Based Undergraduate Research Experience takes an entire class and focuses it on a research model. CUREs have been proven successful in exposing more students to research experiences, but Roberts points out that they are still not the norm. She is leading an effort—backed by a five-year National Science Foundation grant—to survey high schools, colleges, and universities to identify and remove barriers to instituting more CURE classes in those schools.

“The data shows that CUREs are great, but why aren’t more people doing them?  Through these course-based research programs, large numbers of students can have an opportunity to participate in research—real research, not like following a cookbook,” Roberts says. “We want to make them more common.”

Roberts has already led the charge in bringing CUREs to Ursinus, an institution in which many undergraduate students have an opportunity to participate in independent and course-based research as early as their first year on campus. She co-developed the BASIL (Biochemistry Authentic Scientific Inquiry Lab) curriculum, which is part of two Ursinus courses—Structural Biology and Biochemistry II—and is publicly accessible for any high school or college to implement into its own courses ( Roberts worked with eight other institutions on BASIL and after its development in 2019, it was being used by those institutions and few others, including one high school and a college in Great Britain.

Three years later, over 50 institutions have engaged with the BASIL curriculum.

“Doing real research has amazing outcomes for students,” Roberts says. “They see themselves as scientists. They see themselves working in the world of science, and it’s especially impactful for students who are historically underrepresented in STEM fields to have these experiences.”

That’s one focus under the new NSF grant—to ensure that schools with underrepresented populations are encouraged to establish CURE programs to increase the diversity of the STEM workforce. As part of the NSF-funded BASIL team, Roberts is leading a series of workshops to identify what barriers—perceived or real—prevent CUREs from being implemented in high schools or colleges. Those barriers can be structural (the institution doesn’t have the necessary resources); could be dependent on personnel (the institution has instructors who don’t have the required research experience); or other factors. She plans to support at least 10 schools per year over the life of the five-year grant to overcome their barriers and adopt BASIL. In doing so, more students will benefit and persist in STEM.

In Roberts’s BASIL curriculum, students predict the function of a protein and then study that protein in the lab. The curriculum is flexible and can be adapted to match the available facilities, the strengths of the instructor, and the learning goals of an institution. It aims to get students to work across disciplines and transition from thinking like students to thinking like scientists.

“Research is hard,” Roberts says. “A CURE is a safe place for students to try it out. There’s a lot of personal growth, and there is adversity, but students learn from it.”

At Ursinus, students who have successfully completed the CURE courses have gone on to pursue independent research experiences with faculty, have applied it to their honors work, and have utilized what they learned in STEM jobs and internships. Some have even presented their results at national scientific conferences.

“We saw a need, developed this program, and now we want to know why more people aren’t doing it,” Roberts said. “The benefits are undeniable.”

Ursinus students presented BASIL results at an experimental biology meeting. Ursinus students presented BASIL results at an experimental biology meeting.