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Expanding Access to Research Opportunities for STEM Undergraduates

January 6, 2016

Jennifer Stanford, PhD
Jennifer Stanford, PhD

“Many undergraduates nationwide do not engage in research during their education,” says Jennifer Stanford, PhD, assistant professor of biology in Drexel University’s College of Arts and Sciences.

Though it’s been established that student research experiences have beneficial effects on learning and retention, many universities struggle with issues such as sufficient space and resources, and high student-faculty ratios, which can limit students’ exposure to these opportunities, she explains.

Stanford — along with Adam Fontecchio, PhD, professor in the College of Engineering, and Jason Silverman, PhD, associate professor in the School of Education — will spend the next year focusing on classroom-based approaches to expand access to research experiences for STEM undergraduates through a grant from The Arthur Vining Davis Foundations, “STEM Curricula for Authentic Learning Experiences (SCALE).

“Classroom-based approaches have been suggested to be more efficient than traditional mentored research experiences,” say Stanford, “but it’s not yet clear what is essential for an effective undergraduate research experience.”

The Arthur Vining Davis Foundations grant will allow Stanford and her co-investigators to develop and test curricula, with the ultimate goal of creating an adaptable model for universities nationwide.

“We’re piloting a Research Methods course that will ultimately be made available to all undergraduate STEM students at Drexel. The course encourages interdisciplinary awareness and collaborative thinking, and provides students with sound training in research methods,” says Stanford.

Assessment will play a key role in finding the right balance of mentorship, collaboration, course material and duration to make the model sustainable. With the help of the Office of Undergraduate Research, Stanford, Fontecchio and Silverman plan to gauge the program’s strengths and weaknesses from the perspectives of both students and faculty, and evaluate whether students are making similar learning gains to those in more traditional mentored research experiences.

The AVDF grant reinforces the efforts of multiple existing programs on campus, including DragonsTeach, which supports STEM majors interested in education careers, and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) grant, which focuses on increasing STEM student retention by helping students adjust to campus life and find confidence in their ability to contribute to STEM fields. The grant is also part of the efforts of the Center for the Advancement of STEM Teaching and Learning Excellence (CASTLE) — developed by Fontecchio, Silverman, Stanford and others, in response to the challenges identified in the HHMI grant — which facilitates collaborations and catalyzes new conversations regarding innovative STEM education.

“While we know that providing students with access to research experiences is effective in promoting student retention, we need to find effective ways to expand access to these experiences so that all students can benefit,” says Stanford.

The Arthur Vining Davis Foundations grant will allow CASTLE to expand those opportunities and improve the student experience.