A CURE for the challenge of inclusive learning


Why Do We Need a CURE?

To increase equity and inclusion in STEM education, Course-based Undergraduate Research Experiences (CUREs) are among our most promising tools. Research courses improve learning outcomes especially for students in underrepresented groups (Hurtado et al., 2009; Rodenbusch et al., 2016). 

How does this work? Relevance, original thinking, and working in a community of peers are key components of CUREs. For example, in the Tiny Earth CURE, students learn how to do science and engage in true discovery as they contribute to a collective search for new antibiotics. The research is relevant and real: antibiotic resistant bacteria cause millions of untreatable infections each year. The resistance problem is made dire by the declining pipeline of new antibiotics from the pharmaceutical industry. Tiny Earth hopes to address this crisis by crowdsourcing antibiotic discovery through a network of an estimated 14,000+ students per year in 30 countries. In a Tiny Earth course, each student works from a soil sample they procured themselves. They generate their own hypotheses and design experiments to search for new antibiotic-producing strains of bacteria from soil. During the course, they explore microbes in soil and characterize the antimicrobial profiles of their isolates. The possible experiments and findings are infinite. Students also enter their findings into a global database about the antibiotic-producing isolates they discover, thereby communicating their results to a wider scientific community and participating in an important part of scientific discovery (Hurley et al., 2021).

CUREs enable students to be scientists in a community of peers, thereby leading them to identify as scientists regardless of ethnicity or background, and CUREs make research experiences available to all students on an equal basis (Bangera & Brownell, 2014). CUREs can even have a more positive impact on students than research experiences in faculty labs (Aikens et al., 2017).

Studies show that taking a research course early in college increases the likelihood that a student will remain in a STEM major until graduation, and that they will complete college, regardless of major (Rodenbusch et al., 2016). These studies suggest that research courses may have a significant impact on students’ academic trajectories beyond the research course itself.

CUREs introduce students from all types of institutions to the thrill of research early in their academic career (Hurtado et al., 2009; Rodenbusch et al., 2016). Most undergraduate students do not have early opportunities to participate in research. Consequently, most students decide to leave STEM based on their experience in large introductory lecture courses, which are notorious for driving students from STEM before potentially formative research experiences even at research universities. Moreover, the community colleges are key to building a more inclusive STEM workforce because members of groups that have been historically excluded from science are more likely to receive associate degrees than bachelor’s degrees, and many two-year colleges are not equipped to offer students any research experiences. Therefore, CUREs are a significant step toward achieving a more inclusive STEM workforce.

What Can Educators Do?

1. Teach a CURE.

There are CUREs across a range of topics that can be adapted, adopted, or emulated. The great CUREs such as SEA-PHAGES, in which students isolate and characterize bacteriophage from soil (Hanauer et al., 2017, 2022; Jordan et al., 2014); the Genomics Education Partnership (GEP), in which students annotate genomic information that has not previously been studied (Lopatto et al., 2008; Shaffer et al., 2010, 2014); and the UCLA Undergraduate Research Consortium for Functional Genomics, in which students conduct genetic experiments on fruit flies (Evans et al., 2021; Olson et al., 2019), set a standard for quality and impact. These courses nurture creativity, reinforce diverse talents, diminish the stigma of failure, foster community, and teach principles of equity and inclusion in science. They also provide students an opportunity to develop identities as scientists in a community of peers and develop project ownership (Cooper et al., 2019; Hanauer et al., 2012; Hanauer & Dolan, 2014). Many more CUREs can be found across a range of subject areas at CUREnet (https://serc.carleton.edu/curenet)

CUREs also provide student research opportunities at scale, rather than a 1-on-1 research experience with a faculty mentor. The University of Texas at Austin offered several different CUREs to hundreds of first-year students (Beckham et al., 2014; Simmons, 2014) (https://cns.utexas.edu/fri). If the largest university in the United States can do it, can’t every college and university do the same? The Tiny Earth CURE (Hurley et al., 2021) is a scalable model, led by scientists and pedagogical experts with a proven track record of national and international impact, reaching tens of thousands of students. Moreover, the Tiny Earth CURE has been adopted at every type of institution from research universities to liberal arts colleges, community colleges, and minority-serving institutions. Implementing CUREs at diverse institutions ensures that an authentic science research experience is accessible to students of many backgrounds at any educational entry point.

2. Incorporate antiracist, just, equitable, diverse, and inclusive (AJEDI) content into a CURE.

Because they are interactive and collaborative by nature, CUREs are well-positioned to incorporate inclusive AJEDI content. Learning objectives are a great place to start because they convey the instructor’s values. A few examples of AJEDI learning objectives from the Tiny Earth CURE include (Miller et al., 2022):

  • Explain how racism, bias, and white-centering in research design led to health inequities
  • Describe the historical context of racial oppression in relation to clinical research in microbiology
  • Analyze ways in which racism acts as a barrier to health equity based on differential access to soil and other natural resources

Several interventions exist that have been proven to bring AJEDI objectives to life. For example, instructors sending the message that everyone can succeed with hard work, or the so-called “growth mindset,” inspires students to strive harder (Muenks et al., 2020). Other interventions use short writing exercises to highlight themes that are shown to motivate students who are from traditionally excluded groups. These include students writing about the utility value of the course subject matter (Harackiewicz et al., 2016) and about what is important to them, or “values affirmation” (Miyake et al., 2010). Another intervention that can boost performance and influence student well-being even years later is reading about other students overcoming adversity (Walton & Cohen, 2011).

A powerful tool for inspiring all students is illustrating science with a range of role models. Even brief exposure to a successful scientist of their own gender or ethnicity can alter student performance and career aspirations (Buunk et al., 2007; Cheryan et al., 2013; Herrmann et al., 2016; Hood et al., 2020), so every instructor can incorporate diverse imagery into their presentation of science and the people who do it.

Provide an Antidote to Hopelessness

As educators, we can dismantle the systems that prevent students from being able to imagine themselves as scientists. Research-based courses with relevant content and inclusive learning environments provide students a place to practice being scientists and feel like they belong. Conducting experiments teaches students how failure, iteration, persistence, and success are interwoven. Connecting experiments to relevant issues builds a sense of agency that can serve as an antidote to hopelessness and despair that many feel regarding pressing issues such as the pandemic, access to health care, or climate change. Together, these approaches put into practice the AJEDI values that enable students from diverse backgrounds to imagine themselves as scientists.


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About the Author:

Sarah Miller is the Executive Director of Tiny Earth at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Email: sarah.miller@wisc.edu.
Jo Handelsman is the Director of the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery and Founder of Tiny Earth at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Email: jo.handelsman@wisc.edu