At LTU, it means Course-Based Research Experience. Traditional lecture-based learning of most universities and colleges is being set on its ear in favor of a more inclusive, heavily research-based education, and at the undergraduate level. With support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, LTU is shifting the educational paradigm of an entire college into course-based research experience. CRE allows students to learn in a project-oriented environment by conducting authentic research experiments in the classroom.
Housed in the College of Arts and Sciences, CRE is becoming a University-wide mode of hands-on teaching and learning that relates to LTU’s motto of Theory and Practice. Leading the CRE effort currently are Associate Professors Drs. Shannon Timmons, Franco Delogu , Bhubanjyoti Bhattacharya , and Postdoctoral Fellow Dr. Michelle Nelson.
“Here, the instructor is the advisor,” explained Delogu. The teacher teaches, of course, but also brings in their own authentic research. “That’s inclusive pedagogy and it’s very rare and very impactful for students. They get to see what original research looks like; then they have time to embark on their own research.”
The three foundational pillars of CRE are Discovery through Scholarly Practices, Inclusive Collaboration, and Communication of Relevance.
Timmons, an associate professor of chemical biology, noted, “Discovery is a key word. It’s more exciting for me. I get to participate in the making of new molecules and testing for new anticancer activity.” LTU is collaborating with the University of Kentucky to give sophomores, students relatively early in their college experience, real-world research experience and publishing opportunities that could help transform the course of their careers and their lives.
Collaboration — learning in teams, working in teams — is encouraged. “That’s real-world,” Delogu observed. “No one in real work settings really works alone. The teamwork skills that our students learn leads to better research, better discoveries, better outcomes.”
Then students disseminate and communicate what they discovered.
We know from research that our students are learning social skills as well, how to work and communicate with others, critical thinking on a deeper level. Nelson said that this type of learning involves the entire person. “What we teach are transferrable skills.”
Course-based undergraduate research experience is an invaluable aspect of education at LTU. For first-generation college students and economically disadvantaged students who may not be exposed to higher-level STEM courses, this opportunity to participate in authentic research at the undergraduate level helps to level the playing field. Timmons explained how CRE works. “It is an inclusive pedagogical practice that allows all students in the class to reap the many benefits associated with participating in research experiences. This approach eliminates self-selection and includes students who (for a variety of identity-related reasons) may have feelings of low self-efficacy and feel that they're not capable of doing research. CRE is also often particularly impactful for first-generation and/or economically disadvantaged students who may not realize the benefits of participating in research from an academic success or career-related standpoint.
“We’ve also incorporated many DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion)-related seminars, workshops, and journal/book clubs into our grant project as faculty development tools since the overall objective of the grant is related to increasing LTU's capacity for institutional change. Providing faculty development opportunities beyond CRE that can improve teaching and the classroom environment is an important piece of this puzzle to ensure that all students feel like they belong on campus and in their majors.”
The experience of CRE is more than rewarding, as senior chemical biology major Maxwell Wenaas'22 said. “It’s really important for you to actually learn what your research is doing to help the greater scientific community and your growth as a scientist so you can see the actual application of your research. You work harder and it makes your work much more meaningful.”
Andrea Houck, a physics and mathematics major who graduated from LTU in 2022 , agrees and advises incoming LTU students to “take advantage of any CRE opportunities because you never know where they’re going to lead you.” Houck’s own recent CRE project involved creating solutions for physics and math problems using computer code written in Mathematica; she’s never learned coding before and found the experience not only pertinent to her degrees but to future research she’d undertake.
CRE is proving to have a positive impact overall on higher student retention rates, higher graduation rates, and higher overall GPAs, according to evidence-based research. Delogu’s preliminary LTU-specific research seems to point to higher GPAs as a result of CRE.
CRE began mainly as a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) project that’s grown and now applies to the core curriculum at LTU. Timmons explained that CRE is an intrinsic part of the biology, biomedical engineering, business, chemistry, communications, composition, computer science, humanities, literature, mathematics, media communications, nursing, philosophy, physics, and psychology curricula. LTU faculty attend regular seminars on CRE and two CRE retreats during the academic year. “We’re building a sense of community around CRE,” said Timmons. “We’re engaging with one another, working with one another, and getting out of our academic silos.”
Thirty-three colleges and universities have implemented CRE in their programs. The growing trend that began about 15 years ago in biology is spreading because of the benefits to students and their professors, certainly, but to the broader community in the form of stronger critical thinking, communications, and collaboration skills.
To learn more about LTU’s commitment to CRE, please visit www.inclusivity-cre.org.
by Renée Ahee