July 15, 2015

Are you looking for a CURE? (Course-based Undergraduate Research Experience)

Posted by Laura Guertin

I’m currently on my way to the first annual Earth Educators’ Rendezvous in Boulder, Colorado. I’m co-leading a workshop titled “Engaging Students in Scientific Research in Your Course” with two of my fellow councilors from the Geoscience Division of the Council on Undergraduate Research (GeoCUR) – Kim Hannula and Jeff Ryan. This workshop, running for two half-days, will help faculty focus on developing a plan for integrating research practices into their own courses.

I know the acronym CURE may not be familiar to everyone, so I thought I would do a blog post reviewing what exactly is a CURE and why you may want to consider adding a CURE to one or more of your courses. “CURE” stands for Course-based Undergraduate Research Experience. CUREs involve whole classes of students in addressing a research question or problem that is of interest to the scientific community (Auchincloss et al., 2014). CUREs are different from regular laboratory exercises and research internships in the following ways (adapted from Auchincloss et al., 2014):

  • Use of scientific practices, use of scientific techniques
  • Discovery, where the outcome of the investigation is unknown to both the students and the instructor
  • Broadly relevant or important work
  • Collaboration – for work, developing intellectual and communication skills
  • Iteration – students build on and revise their own work

Why do a CURE? CUREs provide a research opportunity to a larger number of students than any independent study, an opportunity that perhaps many students would not pursue on their own. Banger and Brownell (2014) report that students may not even be aware of research possibilities for them, that CUREs remove personal and financial barriers to doing research as well as addressing overall inequities that arise in research communities. Corwin et al. (2015) summarize the results of others that show students with CURE instruction have the same learning gains and confidence in lab skills as students in research internships.

Students using low-cost materials (sticks and string) to generate profiles of campus sidewalks

Students using low-cost materials (sticks and string) to generate profiles of campus sidewalks

I’ll give a quick example of one of the most rewarding CUREs I carried out with students several years ago, in an introductory-level Earth science course (EARTH 100 – Environment Earth) designed for non-science majors. Before the semester began, one of our students on campus that is in a wheelchair came to my office to ask about measurements of the sidewalks on campus. Our campus has a bit of a slope in some spots, which had been a challenge for her to navigate. She was getting a new wheelchair custom-built, and she wanted to provide the designer information about our campus landscape – specifically, the sidewalks on which she traveled between buildings. I took this as an opportunity to have my students take my regular profiling project (I have them profile the campus lawns and a beach) and modify it to profile the sidewalks for this student. My class was incredibly enthusiastic about helping another student, and they generated the data and profiles she wanted, along with a full report she could provide to her wheelchair designer. Now some of you may not view this as a true CURE, as the outcome was not new to science (someone had to have the sidewalk profile data somewhere, so the results were surely already known). But for the students to engage in a technical practice to create a “product” that benefited someone with an identified need (in this case, a fellow student) – I couldn’t have been more thrilled with the outcome and dedication of my non-science majors to what was in essence a community-based research project. I share this because CUREs don’t have to be on a grand scale or complicated! Even small projects that yield an outcome can be meaningful to those involved and to others outside of the course.

Certainly, there are challenges for adapting one or all of your courses to a CURE model. Will you still be able to address your overarching course goal? What would the logistics be for directing a CURE? Do you have the funding and resources for the research? Can you fit a project into a 15-week semester (or whatever the length of your term is)? How do you make the experience meaningful to all students and ensure that all students are active participants? These are questions I cannot provide the answers to, as the responses will vary from faculty member to faculty member, from course to course, and from institution to institution.

You can view our “Engaging Students in Scientific Research in Your Course” workshop page with its materials on the SERC/NAGT website. Supplementary resources have been linked in the GeoCUR diigo group with the tag #EER2015. The publications below are part of the diigo listing.



Additional sources for exploration (in addition to the diigo link provided above)

Auchincloss, L.C, and 14 additional authors. (2014). Assessment of course-based undergraduate research experiences: A meeting report. CBE-Life Sciences Education, 13: 29-40.

Bangera, G., & S.W. Brownell. (2014). Course-based undergraduate research experiences can make scientific research more inclusive. CBE-Life Sciences Education, 13: 602-606.

Corwin, L.A., M.J. Graham, & E.L. Dolan. (2015). Modeling course-based undergraduate research experiences: an agenda for future research and evaluation. CBE-Life Sciences Education, 14: 1-13.