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How to Enrich the Research Experience of Transfer Students

Transfer students can be a step behind in terms of conducting scientific research. Katelyn Cooper, PhD, co-ran an ASU program to help them leap ahead.

Educator

Katelyn Cooper, PhD

Assistant Professor of Biology, University of Central Florida

PhD in Biology, MEd in Education, BS in Biochemistry

Lab research is an integral part of the academic experience for science majors. Unfortunately, students who have just transferred to a four-year institution from a community college are arriving late to the research party. Many are also juggling jobs and families, which may leave them little time to engage in lab work with scientists on campus. This often leaves them underrepresented in undergraduate research at universities across the country, says Katelyn Cooper, assistant professor of biology at the University of Central Florida and formerly a post-doctoral scholar at Arizona State University in Tempe.

“Other students are getting a two-year head start on [campus] research positions, which are very competitive,” she says. “So, as you can imagine, getting a late start on things can really be detrimental.”

To help transfer students majoring in the sciences at ASU get on more even footing with their peers, Cooper and her postdoc advisor, biology education researcher Sara Brownell, PhD, created a four-semester scholarship program called LEAP Scholars, which is now in its second year of implementation. (Brownell and others are still leading the program moving forward, although Cooper has moved to UCF.) LEAP stands for Learning about Research, Entering Research, Advising New Researchers, and Producing Research, with each section being tackled in one semester (see sidebar for details).

Below, Cooper shares how she and Brownell integrated a “biology education research course-based undergraduate research experience (CURE)” during the Learning stage to provide 10 transfer students with the key foundational knowledge they will need to succeed—and proceed. (To read more about how to create these types of courses, read their article, “Developing Course-Based Research Experiences in Discipline-Based Education Research: Lessons Learned and Recommendations.”)

See resources shared by Katelyn Cooper, PhD

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Teaching how to do research with a research project about research

LEAP’s first-semester Learning stage provides students with an opportunity to learn about research by actually doing it—an experience that begins with the students coming up with an intriguing question and fleshing it out with supporting information. “When we thought about how to teach undergraduate students what research is, we realized that one of the best and quickest ways was to get them involved in undergraduate research,” says Cooper. “So that’s how this idea came up: To first get them involved in a biology education research project as a way to prepare them for their basic science research project [in future semesters].”

Below is an overview of the steps followed by Cooper and Brownell with the first group of LEAP students.

1. Introduce the existing academic literature

To start the students’ search for the question that would form the backbone of their research project, Cooper and Brownell put their students through the paces of doing real, painstaking research legwork. This began with an exploration of the existing literature on the subject at hand: undergraduate scientific research.

“We think it would be a big shock to [transfer] students if we were to just drop them into labs, and they had no idea what research is or what they’re supposed to be doing or what expectations were or how to maximize that experience. So instead, we want to prepare them by giving them all that knowledge.”

— Katelyn Cooper, PhD

“There’s a ton of literature that shows how undergraduate research can benefit students in a lot of ways,” says Cooper. “We started by having the students read all the literature they could get their hands on about [this topic], then we asked them to identify holes in the literature and questions they wanted to ask that haven’t been answered.”

Students then produced a single annotated bibliography of the references, including summaries for all of the relevant articles they turned up.

2. Guide them to ask a compelling question

With the literature review in hand, students are armed to take the next step: Identify a compelling overarching question to explore. The most recent group of LEAP students crafted the following question: “Why do students leave their undergraduate research experiences prematurely?”

“The key is that the question is novel both to the students and to [the educators],” says Cooper. “If we were doing something where we knew the answer but the students did not, that might not have the same benefit to the students.”

3. Explain how to create and test a survey

Once the LEAP students crystallized their overarching research question, Cooper and Brownell showed them how to create a survey that they would then use to collect pilot data from ASU students. After creating a preliminary list of survey questions, the student-researchers tested them out on ASU students, using the resultant feedback to identify weak or ambiguous questions—then sharpen and clarify them.

“It’s important that whoever is taking your survey interprets the questions correctly,” says Cooper. “The [pilot surveys] provided really helpful and unique insight into how we were asking the questions, so [the student-researchers] could make sure all of the survey questions made sense.”

An Overview of the LEAP Scholars Program

Each year, ASU awards 10 scholarships to high-achieving, low-income community college transfer students as part of the LEAP Scholars program. Thanks to an S-STEM grant from the National Science Foundation, the program offers each of these awardees a $3,000 scholarship for each of their four upcoming semesters of study.

The LEAP program divides these students’ research experience into four stages, with one stage tackled each semester:

  • Learning about research. Students tour ASU labs and engage with scientists to learn about the research process, the culture of scientific research, and the student research opportunities at ASU. By the end of the semester, they identify the research lab they would like to work in.
  • Entering research. Students join an ASU lab and enroll in three credits of scientific research. ASU faculty mentors help scholars navigate their research experiences, define a research project, and communicate about the research project with peers.
  • Advising new researchers. Students who have been in LEAP for two semesters now serve as mentors for incoming LEAP scholars. They also continue to develop research projects and practice communicating to the scientific community.
  • Producing research. Students continue conducting scientific research, eventually presenting a scientific poster.
4. Launch the survey and cultivate responses

Once the survey was finalized, the LEAP students distributed it to 756 students at 25 research-intensive (R-1) institutions nationwide.

Together with Cooper and Brownell, the students analyzed the data that they collected. They found that 50% of survey respondents considered leaving their undergraduate research experience, and 53.1% of those students actually left their research. Students who reported having a positive lab environment and students who indicated enjoying their everyday research tasks were more likely to not consider leaving their research. In contrast, students who reported a negative lab environment or that they were not gaining important knowledge or skills were more likely to leave their research. To learn more about what the LEAP scholars found, check out the publication that resulted from their work.

5. Encourage reflection, alone and as a group

Cooper and Brownell also insisted that their students engage in self-reflection about what they have learned in the first stage of the LEAP program. The purpose: to help them make observations about how their experience can help them move forward in their basic science research experience, academics, and careers. (This exercise counters one of the reasons people often drop out of research programs—namely, failing to see its future relevance and importance.)

“The overarching goal is to get students to learn about research,” says Cooper. “But the other thing we focus on is getting students to reflect on their own thinking, and as they’re going through this process and doing their own research, getting them to connect all of it to their future research experiences.”

The students are also required to share thoughts about their progress and goals during in-class group work that focuses on frank exchanges of views among students. “It’s important when they’re in their groups that they’re all speaking,” Cooper says. This helps students to realize that, as she notes, “some of the quietest students might have some of the best ideas.”

Outcomes

Recently, a group of Cooper’s students was able to publish the results of their research, a study about the use of humor in instruction in college science classes. The paper looks at the instructional value of humor and analyzes perceptions of funny, unfunny, and offensive humor, taking into account student gender differences in those perceptions.

Cooper says her students claim that they would have had a hard time navigating university research opportunities (much less pushing a study toward publication) if not for the LEAP program’s first-semester emphasis on learning. And, Cooper adds, to her the biggest takeaway is that students have begun to see the value of intellectually contributing to a real research project. “They can see that, if you really understand your research question and you really understand your approach, you can really make a difference,” she says. “And you can really do important work.”

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