Research-Based Learning in Courses

Students Taking a Well Sample

  

Our NSF-funded research project has two broad purposes. The first purpose is to build and pilot our model for research-based learning in courses. We have now used this model with students in a wide range of courses.

The second purpose is to address the questions in our NSF grant. The primary educational research objective of our grant project is to test the efficacy of collaborative undergraduate research in traditional courses. Specifically, we are addressing three primary questions:

  1. Do students conducting small group research gain benefits similar to those documented for individually mentored research?Compared to individual research, are there additional benefits associated with group work?
  2. What are the benefits for Research Fellows? These Research Fellows are students who help run the research station but also are peer mentors helping guide the research process in courses.

Research-Based Learning

Since Fall 2011, we have formally and systematically used a research-based learning approach in over a half dozen different geology courses at different levels.

The model was developed based on our experience and studies described in the literature. In general, our approach mimics components common to research working groups, includes numerous iterative-feedback elements, and has a strong emphasis on effective small groups. Prior to the start of the research project, faculty leads the class in discussing group work to develop positive models for success. In the ideal group, it is in the interest of individual group members for all group members to contribute and learn as much possible in the research experience. As indicated in the cartoon below, there are places in the research process where students are accountable as a group and as individuals. Consequently, students can (and do) end up with different grades for their research.

This model is general; emphasis areas have varied within different courses. However, all the research-based courses involve key research elements: question definition, use of literature, research design, data collection and analysis, oral presentation, and some form of written presentation.

SEE A MODEL OF SMALL GROUP RESEARCH-BASED LEARNING

What is Research-Based Learning?

Based on the literature, we define research-based learning using the 'CURE' (Course-Based Undergraduate Research Experience) definition of Auchincloss et al. (2014).

CURE includes the following:

  1. Research Activities ( i.e. define question, collect data)
  2. Discovery (an unknown outcome from an open-ended question)
  3. A societally or scientifically relevant research question and work
  4. Peer collaboration
  5. An iterative scientific process

For more, see the reference.

Projects in Research-Based Learning Courses

A research-based learning approach has been used in twelve courses as of summer 2015. The table below describes these courses, the research topic and questions, and our 'lessons learned' for each course. The research topics are chosen to align with the course content, while the sophistication of the research projects are chosen to align with the experience level of the students. The complexity of the research approach is also scaled to the class size such that larger classes have simpler designs and smaller classes afford more complex designs.

Previous Projects

Explore the previous projects from the WCHRS Research-Base Learning Courses.

Spring 2015, Geol 305 Soils and Hydrology

Class size: 39

Groups: 8

Instructors: JPG

Majors: Geology, Natural Resources, Environmental Science

Project Length: 5 weeks, noncontiguous

Topic: Landscape influence of soil parameters.

Questions: Each student group was informed that they would dig and describe 3 soil pits and install a well in each. They then had to develop a research question related to how a parameter they could measure about that soil pit would change depending on where the pits were located in the landscape. This allowed a standard field protocol to be used for all groups and all groups to be able to share baseline data about their pits. Additionally, the individual research questions of the students fostered ownership of the project.

What Was Learned About Undergraduate Research (Anecdotally): Progress was tracked by students turning in drafts and final versions of their research question, a proposal, figures from their initial data, a final presentation, and a final paper.

Spring 2015, Geol 150 Methods in Geology

Class size: 29

Groups: 9

Instructors: DK & ML

Majors: Mixed, but mostly Science or Education

Project Length: 3 weeks, noncontiguous

Topic: Water quality of campus streams, part of which flows underground in storm drains.

Questions: The experimental design, including sample times & places, and field methods were defined by instructors. Student groups had to define societally and scientifically relevant hypotheses that could be tested statistically.

What Was Learned About Undergraduate Research (Anecdotally): The approach was a new, constrained model where all data collected were completed outside of class/lab time by a rotating small group of students guided by our research fellows. The result was a single, high-quality data set, which consisted of 5 sites sampled 12 times over the semester for key water quality indicators (temp., pH, conductivity, and turbidity). Overall we were pleased with learning and student interest. Students gained ‘ownership’ by participating in sampling and by having to develop a testable hypothesis. All students had to write and present on research.

Fall 2014, Geol 405 Hydrogeology

Class size: 20

Groups: 5

Instructors: ML

Majors: Geology, Natural Resources, & Environmental Science

Project Length: 5 weeks, noncontiguous

Topic: Characterization of Riparian Hydrogeology along the toe of an alluvial fan

Questions: Student groups developed their own research questions and approach to contribute the characterization of the site. For example, some questions explored differential groundwater flow patterns as a function of alluvial fan stratigraphy, impacts of slope development on groundwater recharge, and groundwater-stream water interaction.

What Was Learned About Undergraduate Research (Anecdotally): Most students had done multiple research-based projects, so had a good knowledge base about how to proceed with research. To accommodate diverse academic backgrounds, students were given wide latitude to contribute to the topic goal. Students readily saw that value of the research to their understanding of hydrogeology and to career preparation.

Fall 2014, Geol 495 Senior Research Capstone

Class size: 5

Groups: 1

Instructors: ML and JPG

Majors: Geology and Earth Science Education

Project Length: 15 weeks

Topic: Interaction of Groundwater and Surface Water

Questions: How do hydrogeomorphic zones of a headwaters stream influence the hyporheic zone? Students collected geomorphic data to characterize stream/valley reaches along with basic water chemistry (Temp., pH, conductivity). They then established detailed transect sites to install groundwater wells and collect water samples for basic chemistry, and hydrogen and oxygen isotopic composition.

What Was Learned About Undergraduate Research (Anecdotally): Students were ambitious in their plan to collect stream and geomorphic data that may influence and/or reflect differences in the interaction of groundwater and stream water. They were challenged in the analysis of data to define detailed study transects. Sampling groundwater and surface water for isotopic analysis proved to provide concrete, relevant data that provided the most insight into their research questions.

Fall 2014, Geol 191 Freshman Seminar

Class size: 25

Groups: 6

Instructors: DK

Majors: Mixed, general education

Project Length: 3 weeks, noncontiguous

Topic: Water Quality

Questions: Students generated their own questions with the ability to examine turbidity, temperature, pH, and conductivity. Specifically, they examined relationships between the variables and other variables like distance from roads and time since a rainstorm

What Was Learned About Undergraduate Research (Anecdotally): Students seemed to enjoy the camaraderie of being in groups and successfully completed group projects. From a seminar perspective, it fit well because it tied students to the University to the community. The students were able to come up with research questions and answer them.

Spring 2014, Geol 150 Methods in Geology

Class size: 34

Groups: Variable

Instructors: DK

Majors: Mostly Geology and Science

Project Length: 3 weeks, noncontiguous

Topic: Soil moisture relative to bulk density, slope position and time.

Questions: What is the soil moisture in gullies vs. nearby ridges, what is the relationship between bulk density and moisture? These were professor defined questions.

What Was Learned about Undergraduate Research (Anecdotally): This model was positive in getting students to collect data, but it wasn't the full model. Research fellows were successfully deployed. However, we could have emphasized the whys, etc. more in this effort.

Spring 2014 , Geol 305 Soils and Hydrology

Class size: 40

Groups: 10

Instructors: ML

Majors: Mixed Natural Science

Project Length: 5 weeks, noncontiguous

Topic: Stream Water Quality

Questions: Students groups had to develop a research question about water quality in either the main campus (developed) or the headwaters region (mostly undeveloped). Prior to developing a question, student research groups were assigned one of three research-grade water quality instruments: a multiparameter probe (temperature, pH, conductivity), turbidity meter, or a water sampling with a field spectrophotometer for nitrogen and phosphorous analysis). Research questions ranged from natural (influence of geomorphic setting) to anthropogenic (impact of campus development).

What Was Learned about Undergraduate Research (Anecdotally): Students were ambitious in their plan to collect stream and geomorphic data that may influence and/or reflect differences in the interaction of groundwater and stream water. They were challenged in the analysis of data to define detailed study transects. Sampling groundwater and surface water for isotopic analysis proved to provide concrete, relevant data that provided the most insight into their research questions.

Fall 2013 , Geol 302 Geomorphology

Class size:20

Groups:5

Instructors:ML & DK

Majors: Mostly Geology

Project Length:5 weeks, noncontiguous

Topic: Stream Channel Geomorphology

Questions: Students developed their own research questions to understand morphologic traits of stream channels, especially related to hydraulic geometry, in two headwaters regions with different land use histories. Prior to developing a question, student research groups were assigned one of four primary approaches/methods types (ex. channel bed materials & slope, channel bank traits, channel cross-sections, & landscape mapping).

What Was Learned about Undergraduate Research (Anecdotally): Research and data collection was more focused than the first time. The same general organizational structure and model was used to manage and implement the research-based learning in the course. Student ownership and quality seemed improved from the first time. We think added emphasis on an adequate number of samples/observations would improve the experience.

Spring 2013 , Geol 140 Investigations in Environmental Geology

Class size: 20

Groups: 5

Instructors: DK

Majors: Non-Science General Education

Project Length:10 weeks, noncontiguous

Topic: hydrology and flowpaths at watersheds

Questions: Students examined the variability of soil moisture with slope position, the relationship between bulk density and infiltration, the relationship between soil moisture and temperature, and the response of stream channels to rainfall. Some students focused research on existing data, though all students had to do some field work.

What Was Learned about Undergraduate Research (Anecdotally): Students wanted more hydrology instruction despite a semester-long field experience. They also could have had clearer grading rubrics because they felt too much was open-ended to the end. Still, the products were good given the student experience level.

Fall 2012, Geol 405 Hydrogeology

Class size: 15

Groups: 3

Instructors: ML

Majors: Mostly Geology

Project Length: 5 weeks, noncontiguous

Topic: The interaction of groundwater and surface water

Questions: Students developed own research question and approach to study the interaction of groundwater and stream water at one of 3 research sites. Methods/data available include 1.5 years water level data, seepage meters, temperature loggers & probes.

What Was Learned about Undergraduate Research (Anecdotally): Many students had done multiple projects, in this and capstone. Presentation and writing quality have definitely improved, perhaps because of multiple exposures to research. They thought it was good for learning and career preparation.

Fall 2012, Geol 495 Senior Research Capstone

Class size: 7

Groups: 2

Instructors: DK

Majors: Geology

Project Length: 15 weeks

Topic: Hydrologic Thresholds

Questions: Students defined research questions to evaluate threshold rain/soil/season conditions for groundwater recharge, and the relationship of slope hydrology to gaining/losing stream reaches.

What Was Learned about Undergraduate Research (Anecdotally): Students were able to generate reasonable research questions after reading papers and group discussions of the literature.

Spring 2012, Geol 305 Soils and Hydrology

Class size: 36

Groups: 9

Instructors: DK

Majors: mixed natural science

Project Length: 4 weeks, noncontiguous

Topic: Sorptivity (infiltration rates)

Questions: Students were given a method, to determine sorptivity, and then required to generate their own question. Students examined differences in sorptivity with land cover and depth, as well as compared sorptivity to other variables (bulk density and grain size).

What Was Learned about Undergraduate Research (Anecdotally): The structure of having a method and the freedom to determine their own method seemed to appeal to the students. The field quiz still seemed important for "touching base" with students.

Fall 2011, Geol 302 Geomorphology

Class size: 22.

Groups: 5.

Instructors: ML & DK.

Project Length: 5 weeks, noncontiguous

Topic: Stream Channel Geomorphology

Questions: Students examined channel hydraulic geometry and characteristics in Gribble Gap stream. As a group, they defined questions using a similar approach to that outlined by a recent paper published on stream geomorphology in the southern Appalachians.

What Was Learned about Undergraduate Research (Anecdotally): Full research model was applied including field quizzes, peer assessments, research abstracts, and final papers and presentations. As instructors, we decided the number of observations and variables collected was too high.

Additional Details

*Equipment: The equipment needs vary by course, but most just needed standard field equipment and lab support (e.g. simple survey equipment, measure tapes, soil infiltration devices, sample bottle, and bags, etc. More specialized equipment in some courses included research-grade field water quality meters, turbidity meters, portable spectrophotometers, temperature loggers, water level loggers, rain gauges, etc. Most research was completed on our main campus and/or the Western Carolina Hydrologic Research Station.

# Student Research Process: In all of these research-based courses, except one (Geol 150, Spring 2014), student research groups defined questions, planned the research design, analyzed their data, made an oral 'professional style' research presentation, and wrote some form of a research report. The emphasis on different aspects of the research process varied by course.

% Project Length: This provides a rough estimate of how many weeks of the semester were directly related to the research—typically a mix of lab, lecture, and out-of-class/lab time. In most cases, the length of the research project, from initiation to completion, spans the majority of the semester, typically, 9-12 weeks, but the time directly dedicated to the research project is less (commonly 5 weeks).

Office of Web Services