Explorations: A Research-Based Program Introducing Undergraduates to Diverse Biology Research Topics Taught by Grad Students and Postdocs

By Brownell, Sara E.; Khalfan, Waheeda et al. | Journal of College Science Teaching, January-February 2013 | Go to article overview

Explorations: A Research-Based Program Introducing Undergraduates to Diverse Biology Research Topics Taught by Grad Students and Postdocs


Brownell, Sara E., Khalfan, Waheeda, Bergmann, Dominique, Simoni, Robert, Journal of College Science Teaching


Research universities are host to a plethora of diverse research topics in biology, but undergraduate biology majors often find it difficult to educate themselves about what opportunities exist. Graduate students and postdocs at research universities are intimately connected to the research side of research-intensive campuses but are often frustrated by the lack of teaching opportunities that are distinct from traditional teaching assistantships. We have created a program called Explorations that links these two populations to synergistically meet both of these needs and take full advantage of what research institutions can offer.

Rationale for program development

Problem #1

Undergraduate biology majors are often overwhelmed by and under-informed about the diversity and complexity of biological research that is conducted on research-intensive campuses (Boyd & Wesemann, 2009; Brown, 2006). The scope of biological questions being investigated in university research laboratories is large, and there are so many subspecialties that an undergraduate taking an introductory biology class would likely not get exposed to many exciting topics in biology. The broad introductory biology courses that serve as most undergraduates' first experiences with university biology often must provide core material that is relatively static. These courses often cannot expose students to the most recent active research in diverse areas of biology. Additionally, biology undergraduates at large research institutions often have difficulty making connections with mentors and research laboratories in their early years, despite a body of literature that suggests that early contact with mentors decreases science major dropout (McGee & Keller 2007; Shellito, Shea, Weismann, Mueller-Solger, & Dawis, 2001; Villarejo, Barlow, Kogan, Veazey, & Sweeney, 2008). Often, even though students have access to academic advisors and support staff, they do not know how to decide what area of biology is of most interest to them. This uncertainty and ambiguity can hinder students from conducting independent undergraduate research, and these research experiences have been shown to have many benefits for students in their undergraduate education and future career opportunities (Balster, Pfund, Rediske, & Branchaw, 2010; Lopatto, 2007; Taraban & Blanton, 2008).

Problem #2

Except for the traditional teaching assistant (TA) position, there are few opportunities for graduate students in biology-related fields at research-intensive universities to teach undergraduates (Benyajati 2007; Fleet et al., 2006). Teaching assistantships tend to be a substantial amount of work for graduate students and are often discouraged by research advisors because they take significant time away from a research thesis project. Additionally, TA opportunities for teaching undergraduates (rather than other graduate students) are sometimes difficult to obtain for graduate students housed in medical schools. The surprisingly few opportunities for certain populations of graduate students to teach undergraduates represents a fundamental problem in graduate education since the majority of these graduates will be teaching undergraduates in some capacity (e.g., community college, liberal arts college, or academic research institutions; Fuhrmann, Halme, O'Sullivan, & Lindstaedt, 2011).

Even more disconcerting are the lack of teaching opportunities for postdoctoral fellows in biology related fields (Ghayur, 2008). Only in rare circumstances are they allowed to serve as TAs, and if postdoctoral fellows have not had previous teaching experience as graduate students, this lack of teaching experience could hinder their competitiveness for an academic position. Although there are programs that have tried to remedy this situation by providing postdocs and graduate students with innovative teaching opportunities (e.g., Future Faculty Fellows Programs, CIRTL Network, and University of Texas' Research Streams), there are still far too few teaching opportunities. …

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