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Implementing course-based research increases student aspirations for STEM degrees.


The National Academy of Sciences committees that produced the reports Rising Above the Gathering Storm (2007) and Rising Above the Gathering Storm--Revisited (2010) determined that the driving force of our nation's future economy and creation of jobs will result from innovation and advances in science and engineering. Although scientists and engineers make up only 4 percent of the nation's workforce, this group generates most of the jobs for the other 96 percent (National Academy of Sciences et al. 2007; National Academy of Sciences 2010). Indeed, the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) estimated that our future economic growth will require one million additional science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) graduates (PCAST 2012).

Students majoring in science often change careers primarily because they lose interest during introductory science classes (Seymour and Hewitt 1997). Over the last 10 years or so, scientists and educators have increasingly recommended that science be taught the way it is practiced (Brewer and Smith 2011; Smith 2015) and that colleges should provide research opportunities to students within their first two years (PCAST 2012). Students who engage in research experiences benefit in various ways; they are more motivated to persist in STEM degree programs and careers and to pursue more advanced degrees than originally intended (Jordan et al. 2014; Lopatto 2004, 2007; Lopatto et al. 2008). In addition, research suggests that dedicated mentors can impact students' career success by helping students develop skills that employers desire, such as teamwork and critical thinking (Hill 1998; Stewart and Krueger 1996). Students who participate in undergraduate research show greater gains in learning, increased retention, greater participation in campus activities, and integration into the culture and profession of their disciplines. Faculty research mentors foster interaction between students and instructors and strengthen students' peer groups, both of which have been shown to positively affect students' connection to their disciplines and their cognitive and behavioral development (Astin 1993; Horner et al. 2008). Therefore, engaging students in an authentic research experience early in their academic careers can have lasting implications for both initial student success and long-term development of a community of innovative, enthusiastic, and successful students.

In fall 2013, 46 percent of all U.S. undergraduates were enrolled at a two-year community, technical, or tribal college (AACC 2015). This percentage climbs to 57 percent for Hispanic undergraduates and 61 percent for Native American undergraduates. Clearly, if increasing the number and diversity of individuals earning STEM degrees is a national goal, we must encourage more community-college students to remain in STEM disciplines because a large segment of the student pipeline runs through these institutions. Two-year colleges play a critical role in undergraduate STEM education, and understanding the teaching and learning process in biology and other STEM fields at these colleges is crucial to achieving change in STEM education (Fletcher and Carter 2010).

Many community colleges are incorporating undergraduate research experiences into their curricula in various ways (CCURI and CUR 2015; Hensel and Cejda 2014). Indeed, in a recent review of undergraduate research, approximately 20 percent of the 60 studies included information from two-year schools (Linn et al. 2015). However, much of the literature to date on research experiences at community colleges has focused on how research opportunities are being incorporated at these institutions rather than understanding the impact of such practices on the persistence and success of students in STEM courses.

A few studies have examined the effect of research experiences on the transition of STEM students to four-year programs. For example, the STEM-ENGINES program at a consortium of two- and four-year institutions in the Midwest encouraged community-college students to participate in 8- to 10-week summer research experiences and this, in turn, encouraged the students to transfer to four-year colleges (Brother and Higgins 2008; Higgins et al. 2011). Similarly, Leggett-Robinson and colleagues (2015) observed that the majority (75 percent) of community-college participants in their summer research program successfully transferred to a four-year institution after participating in a three-week introduction to research conducted by their own community-college faculty and then eight weeks of research at a local four-year institution. These students also tended to participate in summer research programs in subsequent years and to participate in research at their new institution after transferring (Leggett-Robinson et al. 2015).

At Del Mar College, a Hispanic-serving community college in Corpus Christi, Texas, students may engage in authentic research through a course-based undergraduate research experience (CURE) as part of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute's SEA-PHAGES (Science Education Alliance Phage Hunters Advancing Genomics and Evolutionary Science) program. The course-based research is funded in part by our NSF Advanced Technological Education grant, REVISION: Revising Science with Vision. Although the REVISION project also has a summer internship component, this article focuses on our course-based research activities, especially our participation in the SEA-PHAGES program.

Course-based research has been recommended as a way to "scale up" undergraduate research programs to reach more students than is possible through the more traditional "apprenticed-based" programs with individual students working in college and university labs. Evidence suggests that students participating in such course-based research perceive as many benefits and learn as much as peers do in the apprentice-based model (Corwin et al. 2015; Shapiro et al. 2015).

The course-based model may be of particular importance in the community-college setting, where many students work full time or nearly so and may have little time for an apprentice-type program. However, little information on the impact of such course-based programs at community colleges is available. To address this gap, we explore student outcomes as evaluated by the SEA-CURE assessment surveys (conducted for SEA-PHAGES by Dr. David Lopatto, Grinnell College). We also examine our own data on student participation in activities related to engaging in the scientific enterprise, such as original research presentations, publications, and awards, all of which are student outcomes that are not possible in a traditional course setting.

Implementation of SEA-PHAGES at Del Mar College

Although implemented in various ways at different institutions, the SEA-PHAGES program was designed as a two-course laboratory sequence to introduce beginning undergraduates to course-based research while they participate in authentic genomics research (Jordan et al. 2014). In this program students isolate and characterize bacterial viruses (phages) from local soil, prepare viral DNA for sequencing, and then annotate and compare the sequenced genomes. In 2011, Del Mar College became one of only three community colleges at that time accepted to the SEA-PHAGES program.

We have implemented SEA-PHAGES in the lab portions of our biology and biotechnology two-course introductory sequences (Biological Concepts I and II and Introduction to Biotechnology I and II, respectively). Although both course sequences are intended for science majors as well as nonmajors, the SEA-PHAGES sections of the biology courses are limited to majors due to class sizes. The biotechnology courses are open to all students, however, and are used to recruit students into the major.

Students isolate their own phages in the first course, in the fall semester, and begin to characterize them with transmission electron microscopy and basic analysis of the DNA. The University of Pittsburgh's Bacteriophage Institute sequences some of the phage genomes over the winter break, and Del Mar College usually receives sequences from one to three phages by the time the spring semester starts. In the spring semester, students analyze a phage genome using various bioinformatics tools, including several programs provided by SEA-PHAGES. However, students do not need to take the courses in sequence, and some students may become involved in genome annotation without having isolated a phage.

Both the fall and spring lectures and labs are scheduled in adjacent lecture/lab rooms to facilitate sharing of materials. In the fall, the lecture and lab are taught in the same rooms, which are set up in pods with a computer for every pair of students. In the spring semester, the lab sections of the courses meet jointly in a computer lab for the genome annotation or bioinformatics component. In addition, we have created videos of important techniques for both the isolation and annotation parts of the courses, which are available to students on the classroom computers and on iPads that students can check out for the semester. These videos allow students to review techniques or procedures whenever they need them.

Students work in pairs and are encouraged to come in during "open lab" sessions, during which instructors and teaching assistants are available to assist students with problem solving. Teaching assistants are students who have successfully completed the two-course sequence and are hired to assist the instructors. In the spring semester, as a course assignment, each pair of students is responsible for preparing a poster on its genomic analysis. Both students in a pair have the opportunity to present the poster either at a regional meeting (e.g., the Texas Branch of the American Society of Microbiology) or at our student research day, held near the end of the spring semester specifically for the SEA-PHAGE classes.

Evaluation of SEA-PHAGES

The SEA-PHAGES program encourages member schools to participate in the SEA-CURE online surveys that are conducted by Dr. David Lopatto of Grinnell College. A precourse survey is made available to all SEA-PHAGES classes early in the fall semester, and a postcourse survey is made available late in the spring semester. The precourse survey includes questions about students' reasons for taking the course, their levels of experience with various course elements, their attitudes to ward science, and their learning style. The postcourse survey includes the previous questions, plus additional questions about students' perceptions of their learning gains in course elements, the perceived benefits of what they've learned, and an overall evaluation of the SEA-PHAGES experience. Both surveys also collect demographic data. The surveys are based on five-point scales for both the attitudinal questions (in both precourse and postcourse surveys) and the questions about learning gains (postcourse survey only). After the postcourse survey, aggregate data (means per section for each course) are provided to instructors at their request and include comparisons to all other institutions completing the SEA-CURE survey in that academic year. The SEA-CURE survey has many questions in common with Lopatto's original Survey of Undergraduate Research Experiences (SURE). More information about the surveys, especially the questions concerning learning gains, can be found in Lopatto (2004, 2007).

Del Mar College students participated in both the precourse and postcourse surveys in academic years 2013-14 and 201415 (referred to below as academic years 2014 and 2015). Links to the surveys were provided via our online course-management system. To encourage more students to complete the surveys, students were given time to take the survey during a lecture or lab, especially in 2015. In addition to the national surveys, we have collected data on what we call "tangible outcomes." The data gathered were the number of students who presented a poster or talk at a local, regional, or national meeting; the number of students who received presentation awards at a meeting; the number of publications on which a student was a coauthor; and the number of students who participated in summer internships. We collected this information for academic years 2014 and 2015 for all sections of the introductory biology and biotechnology sections that authors Hatherill and Zhang teach and compared the numbers for students in their SEA-PHAGES sections to the students in their "traditional" sections. Finally, as an informal evaluation, we polled mentors about the preparation and progress of summer interns.

Student Outcomes

Due to our particular interest in the effects of course-based research on students' motivation and aspirations for STEM degrees and careers, we focus here on the questions concerning perceived learning gains on the postcourse SEA-CURE survey, as well as several of the attitudinal questions asked on both the precourse and postcourse surveys. During academic years 2014 and 2015, 45 Del Mar students participated in the precourse surveys, and 34 participated in the postcourse surveys, compared to 1,464 students nationally who completed the SEA-CURE surveys.

Del Mar students perceived the same or greater learning gains as students at other SEA-CURE institutions, most of which are four-year colleges and universities (Figure 1). In particular, we note that Del Mar students perceived larger gains than the average of all SEA-CURE respondents for the gains of "Clarifying career path" (mean=3.74 for Del Mar versus 3.11 for all institutions), "Readiness for more demanding research" (mean=4.18 versus 3.72), "Learning ethical conduct" (mean=3.84 versus 3.26), and "Skill in how to give an effective oral presentation" (mean=3.83 versus 3.30). The fact that students feel more ready for research and have more confidence in their abilities to give oral presentations is important for their motivation to continue into science careers, especially those in which these skills may be needed (e.g., PhD-level careers).

Other learning gains that Del Mar students perceived in their abilities that would support aspirations to remain in STEM degree programs and move on to STEM careers included "Tolerance for obstacles," "Read primary literature," "Understanding how scientists think," "Work independently," and "Becoming part of a learning community." The last of these learning gains, in particular, indicates that at the end of these courses students felt more connected with their disciplines than they did before participating in SEA-PHAGES. Interestingly, the only other study we know of that reports results of the same learning gains from a community college (from Lopatto's SURE survey) also reported that students perceived the same or greater gains as the comparison group, which also was composed largely of students at four-year institutions (Brother and Higgins 2008). This potential trend for the impact of undergraduate research at community colleges needs further study. We note, however, that these findings are consistent with studies that indicate that early research experiences are important for student retention in STEM disciplines (e.g., Nagda et al. 1998). These findings led PCAST (2012) to recommend federal funding to support course-based research in the first two years of college.

Overall, we also observed an increase in students' positive attitudes toward STEM and research activities between the precourse and postcourse surveys. We focused on several survey items that indicated more motivation for STEM (Figure 2). Del Mar students were more likely to consider taking another research-based course (a 22-percent increase) and much more likely to present at a conference (69-percent increase) after participating in SEA-PHAGES than they did before participating. Even more importantly, students felt they would be more likely to pursue STEM careers (30-percent increase) and research careers (36-percent increase), another indication of their increased aspirations for STEM degrees and employment.

Del Mar students had other tangible outcomes from the SEA-PHAGES experience that engaged them in the scientific enterprise and that are not possible in more traditional courses. In academic years 2014 and 2015, Del Mar students who participated in at least one of the SEA-PHAGES courses made presentations at local, regional, and national conferences and won awards while competing with students from four-year research institutions (Table 1). Several students were included as coauthors on papers, and many participated in summer internships. Although the exact number of SEA-PHAGES students engaging in these activities can vary considerably from year to year based on opportunities and funding, their counterparts in traditional sections of the same courses taught by the same instructors had none of these experiences or opportunities.

We have also observed that SEA-PHAGES students appear able to grasp laboratory techniques faster, work more independently, and demonstrate superior skills and technical competencies than students in our traditional courses. However, because these outcomes are difficult to assess, we have used informal polling of individuals from other institutions (university, government, and industry labs) who mentor our summer interns to gain an independent perception of Del Mar students' preparation for and abilities in research. Each year, mentors are very pleased with the Del Mar College student interns.

At first, many mentors seemed surprised at how well prepared the students were. All students were able to collect enough data to present at regional and national meetings, and some received awards. Several of the publications previously mentioned came from students' summer research internships. In addition, Del Mar students have received compliments on their abilities to present their own research both during their internships and at meetings and conferences. For example, when colleagues from local universities attend our student research day in the spring or a fall poster session for students who participated in a summer internship, we often hear comments on the quality of the science as well as the quality of the presentations and the depth of knowledge the students demonstrate. Some colleagues particularly mention that the level of work is on a par with that of graduate students. These types of positive experiences and engagement in the scientific enterprise are important motivators for students, ones that are difficult to gain in a traditional course. Clearly, the REVISION course-based research program engages students with the scientific community and increases students' aspirations to continue in STEM fields.

Lessons Learned and Conclusions

An important lesson we have learned during our SEAPHAGES experience is that implementing the program is more time-consuming than preparing for and teaching a traditional course. It also necessitates careful planning to be able to have time near the end of the semester to cover lab techniques in the biotechnology course that are not part of SEA-PHAGES. The isolation and characterization part of the program can be particularly time-consuming. For example, the viruses that students isolate in the fall require a bacterial host; therefore, cultures of the hosts must be maintained and made available to students throughout the process. In addition, after the first isolation, students are generally at different places in the isolation and characterizations procedures. Failure is an option; some students fail to isolate a phage on the first or even second try. These groups will be behind at least for part of the semester as they proceed into characterization. Other steps may need to be repeated for various reasons. However, in the spring semester, the time commitment is not as heavy while students are engaged in genome annotation.

The issue of time commitment leads to another lesson we have learned not only from our own experience but also from colleagues at other institutions involved in the program: Institutional support for lab-prep personnel and teaching assistants is imperative. Teaching assistants are particularly helpful for "open lab" time and assisting students who need to re-do experiments, as well as assisting in mentoring students through the process of preparing for poster presentations. Our NSF funding assists in this regard, but we also have the support of the college's administration. This support includes recognizing students' hard work by not only attending but also participating in our student research day in the spring. The college president and the dean make it a point to attend and to provide a welcome at our annual event; they also stay and ask students questions during their poster presentations. This type of support helps students feel that their work is important to their local community as well as to the scientific community. Therefore, we recommend that any institution, especially a community college, that is planning to apply to the SEA-PHAGES program obtain not only financial support from the administration but also a commitment by leadership to participate in events such as a student research day.

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the SEA-PHAGES program also offer support in various ways, including training workshops for faculty and teaching assistants in both the isolation/characterization procedures and the genome annotation/bioinformatics components of the program. They also sponsor an annual symposium and informative websites. One of these websites ( includes information, software updates, and forums specifically for faculty to ask questions and search for information. We have also found faculty at other SEA-PHAGES institutions very approachable and willing to share information and experiences. However, we recommend having at least one microbiologist among the faculty members involved in the program. Even though the training provided is excellent and does not necessitate a background in microbiology, the experience that a microbiologist will bring to the team will be helpful in many ways, including the logistics of how to run the program at an institution, especially in the beginning. A recent study comparing student perceptions of course-based research labs at a two-year school to those of students at a nearby four-year institution indicated that support during the course-based research experience for both instructors and students at the two-year college can be crucial if students are to have a positive experience (Wolkow et al. 2014).

Another lesson learned has been the challenge of tracking students once they complete the SEA-PHAGES courses, especially after they graduate and/or transfer. Some students stay engaged even after graduation, especially those who have been teaching assistants; however, others change email addresses or phone numbers and become impossible to reach. We have tried using social media, such as a Facebook page and, more recently, a Twitter account linked to the Facebook page, to keep in touch with students and keep them informed about the program and opportunities, but this has not been as successful as we had hoped. This tracking problem has affected the assessment of the long-term benefits of the initiative (e.g., determining how many students join and stay in the STEM workforce, how many graduate with bachelor's degrees in a STEM field, and how many go on to graduate degrees in STEM). In the hope of being able to follow the latest group of students over the long-term, we have started a LinkedIn group specifically for our REVISION/SEA-PHAGES students.

Although implementing and sustaining a course-based research program such as SEA-PHAGES at a two-year college has its challenges, the benefits are just as great. Observing students' increasing confidence in their lab, computer, and problem-solving skills, as well as taking ownership of their scientific discovery (a new virus), is a reward in itself. One particular high point in the fall semester is watching students' excitement as they see the transmission electron microscope images of their virus for the first time. In addition, the trouble-shooting and problem-solving skills students gain from dealing with issues such as failure to isolate a phage or contamination of their cultures are important to their future success in the high-performance workplace and in science in general.

In conclusion, through implementation of SEA-PHAGES, Del Mar College students have become more engaged with the scientific community and have greater aspirations to continue in STEM fields. Therefore, we encourage faculty at other community colleges to apply to this program. We will continue to explore the impact of this program on community college students, including using new assessment tools that predict persistence in STEM, as well as comparing our outcomes to those of other community colleges that have recently been accepted into SEA-PHAGES.


We thank Del Mar College SEA-PHAGES students who completed surveys and Dr. David Lopatto and Leslie Jaworski of Grinnell College for providing the SEA-CURE data. We also thank the SEA-PHAGES team at the University of Pittsburgh: Drs. Graham Hatfull, Welkin Pope, Dan Russell, and Debbie Jacobs-Sera, as well as the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, for supporting the SEA-PHAGES program. Preparation of this article was supported by the National Science Foundation through the Advanced Technological Education program under award number DUE-1205059.


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R. Deborah Overath, Daiyuan Zhang, J. Robert Hatherill, Del Mar College

J. Robert Hatherill

Del Mar College,

R. Deborah Overath is the NSF ATE project director for REVISION: Revising Science Education with Vision, an NSF Advanced Technological Education project at Del Mar College. She served as co-chair of the SACNAS (Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/ Hispanics and Native Americans in Science) Student Presentations committee for several years and received the 2008 SACNAS Distinguished Undergraduate Mentor Award. Overath held faculty positions at both two-year colleges and four-year universities after earning a PhD in genetics at the University of Georgia.

Daiyuan "Daisy" Zhang is an associate professor of biotechnology and co-director of the Biotechnology Program at Del Mar College. She is also co-principal investigator of the REVISION program and one of the implementers of the SEA-PHAGES (Science Education Alliance Phage Hunters Advancing Genomics and Evolutionary Science) program as course-based research at Del Mar. She has extensive experience mentoring undergraduate researchers. Zhang earned a PhD in molecular biology at the University of North Texas and was a research associate at the USDA-ARS (Agricultural Research Service) laboratory in Maricopa, Arizona, before joining the faculty at Del Mar College.

J. Robert Hatherill is a professor of biology, principal investigator of the REVISION Program, and co-director of the biotechnology program at Del Mar College. He has been a Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory Fellow each summer since 2006. During that time, he has taken many Del Mar College students to the laboratory as summer interns. He also has mentored many other students through the SEA-PHAGES program and through multiple NSF and other grants. He is the 2016 recipient of the Dr. Aileen Creighton Award for Teaching Excellence, the most prestigious award for Del Mar College faculty, and has received congressional recognition for mentoring undergraduates in research. Hatherill earned a PhD in toxicology at the University of Michigan, completed a postdoctoral appointment at Stanford University in molecular toxicology, worked in private industry, and held other faculty positions.

doi: 10.18833/curq/37/2/2

Table 1. Tangible Outcomes for Del Mar College SEA-PHAGE
Students *

Outcome                Course type

                       SEA-PHAGES       Traditional

Presentations          37.0 (7.1) (a)   0
Presentation awards    6.0 (3.6)        0
Publications           1.5 (0.6)        0
Summer internships     14.5 (4.5)       0

* Compared to students in traditional sections of the same courses
taught by the same instructors

(a) Numbers are means (standard deviation) for 2014 and 2015.
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Title Annotation:CUR Focus; science, technology, engineering, and mathematics
Author:Overath, R. Deborah; Zhang, Daiyuan; Hatherill, J. Robert
Publication:Council on Undergraduate Research Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 22, 2016
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