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Innovating With Inclusive Undergraduate Research Opportunities

CMU biology professors work to create more equitable and accessible research experiences for all students

In most higher education institutions, undergraduate research opportunities for students in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programs are conducted one-on-one with faculty, are non-paid positions and are highly competitive. This leads to lower levels of diversity among participants and excludes all but the highest achieving, best-connected and most financially stable students from gaining the necessary experience to enroll in top-tier graduate programs and confidently pursue research-centric employment upon graduating.

Two Colorado Mesa University biology professors are helping to lead an effort to upend this paradigm and have developed a series of free course-based undergraduate research experiences (CUREs) in collaboration with seven other members of the American Society of Mammologists. This project was secured thanks to funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the support of CMU’s Office of Sponsored Programs.

At the most recent CMU Faculty Colloquium held at the Center for Teaching and Learning, Associate Professor of Biology Johanna Varner, PhD, and Assistant Professor of Biology Patrice Connors, PhD, delivered a presentation titled Squirreling Around for Science: Doing Authentic Research in Undergraduate Courses where they detailed how they provide robust undergraduate research opportunities to all their students through by embedding the experiences within their ecological course offerings.

“One way we can make research experiences more inclusive and more equitable for our students is to provide them inside the classroom,” said Connors.

CUREs are a well-established pedagogical tool in the field of microbiology, but Varner and Connors wanted to give the students in their domain of ecology and mammalogy access to similar opportunities to help them develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills necessary to conduct genuine inquiry research. By offering students authentic, relevant, collaborative, iterative and authentic research experiences while students are in class, the many benefits of conducting undergraduate research become more equitable, inclusive and diverse.

At the 2017 American Society of Mammologists meeting in Moscow, Idaho, Varner and Connors met with seven other faculty from colleges across the country who were committed to improving undergraduate education, and by the end of the meeting, the team had narrowed their focus.

“After discussing which taxa and research questions we could study anywhere ­— from the desert southwest to the boreal forests — we decided to focus on the behavioral ecology of squirrels and this was the beginning of Squirrel-Net,” said Varner. 

Squirrels, and their behavioral ecology, were chosen as the focus because they are common across a variety of habitats, are often found on college campuses, are well-studied, and are charismatic, easily observable and entertaining subjects for behavioral research.

Fast forward to the present and Squirrel-Net now has four ready-to-go modules that are freely available and include all the requisite teaching materials, supporting information and assessments a professor would need to implement a CURE for their students anywhere in the country, or anywhere in the world that squirrels can be observed. Squirrel-Net also serves as a repository of student-collected data and the team is planning to leverage that collected data in future CUREs that will focus on data management.

The most popular flagship CURE is the Squirreling Around for Science activity, wherein students observe squirrels for five minutes and record specific behaviors every 20 seconds.  By collecting this data from a range of species across a range of habitats, students can ask questions or test hypotheses about behavioral trade-offs (i.e., how much time a squirrel will spend foraging versus being vigilant or looking for predators). Some CUREs require little more than a pen and pencil to record observations while others incorporate cameras, radio telemetry and other various other technologies. The four existing modules were also created to be scaffolded throughout a student’s academic journey, so students have repeated experiences that build in complexity over time, leading to higher retention and confidence.

One example of a student who benefitted from participating in a CURE while at CMU is Tabitha McFarland, ’20. McFarland was able to participate in two of the squirrel projects and recently graduated with a master's degree from the University of New Mexico where she studied the evolution of lagomorphs and small mammals in South America. She is featured in the Squirrel-Net Who We Are! video on the Squirrel-Net YouTube channel in which McFarland explains that she enjoyed getting to engage first-hand with the scientific process and knowing that she was contributing to data sets used by students across the country.

Varner and Connors have applied for additional NSF funding, and if secured are ready to develop additional modules that will look at flight initiation distance (how close you must get to a squirrel before they run away), data management of squirrel detectability/occupancy as well as multilevel investigations into squirrel sex ratios. Other CMU biology faculty are ready to jump on board and help if funding is secured.

To date, Squirrel-Net has collected over 10,000 lines of data, and over 6,500 students have participated from 275 different institutions, including nine institutions that are outside of the U.S. By looking at pre- and post-survey data from these participants, Connors and Varner have been able to see marked growth in the number of students that identify as scientists in addition to all the anecdotal evidence of the program’s success that they have witnessed in their classes.

One of the objectives of the faculty colloquiums at CMU is to cultivate collaboration among faculty and as Connors and Varner wrapped up their talk, they highlighted how other academic fields are implementing CUREs or CURE-like curriculum. They featured a selection of music psychology, mathematics and criminal justice initiatives that professors around the country have implemented, and celebrated the great work that the CMU nursing and engineering programs are doing through their capstones.

If you want to explore the modules discussed in this article, learn more about CUREs in general or connect with Connors and/or Varner, you can visit the Squirrel-Net website, or find them on XFacebook or Instagram.


Written by Giff Walters