When Ana Polar and Nick Hantzopulos arrived early for a recent evening biology laboratory course this spring semester at The University of Texas at El Paso, they were greeted by an empty, serene classroom.
But the silence wouldn’t last. As the rest of their classmates filed in, a cacophony ensued as students discussed assignments, updated research and community outreach plans, and critiqued one another’s work. This type of boisterous setting is not often one that is associated with academia. And that’s precisely the intent of Jeffrey Olimpo, Ph.D., assistant professor of biological sciences.
Olimpo, along with Jennifer Apodaca, Ph.D., laboratory coordinator in biological sciences, facilitate one of more than 10 Course-based Undergraduate Research Experiences (CUREs) offered by the College of Science. Their class, “Disease and the Environment: Health Disparities in the Border Region,” is intended to offer interdisciplinary opportunities for students to develop into scholars and leaders in their respective fields.
On a national level, CUREs have been championed in recent years as a mechanism to increase student access to authentic scientific research experiences. Current evidence indicates that students who participate in CUREs achieve many of the same outcomes as students who engage in faculty-mentored research and/or research internships. These outcomes include enhanced science identity development, science literacy and career interest in the domain.
At UTEP, CUREs are funded by several sources including the National Institutes of Health’s BUILDing SCHOLARS program and the Program to Educate and Retain Students in STEM Tracks (PERSIST), supported by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.
“It gets you out of your comfort zone,” said Polar, a sophomore biology major with a biomedical concentration. “It opens the door for you to understand that there are opportunities here to work with professors even though you don’t work in a lab. It … lets you know you are capable.”
Olimpo said his course offers undergraduates access to an immersive experience that deviates from a prescriptive mindset in favor of a teaching approach based on the faculty-mentor research model.
“These kinds of courses are relatively new,” Olimpo said. “This whole movement for CUREs stems from the fact that traditional labs were seen as very cookie-cutter, where you knew the answer before you arrived at the lab. We are trying to get away from that and put students in a mindset that attempts to engage them more rigorously in the actual process of science.”
That engagement is not only a way for students to develop transferrable skills, according to Laura A. Diaz-Martinez, Ph.D., associate director of the Campus Office of Undergraduate Research Initiatives (COURI), it is also aligned with the UTEP Edge, the University’s student success culture that seeks to identify and build on the strengths that students bring with them to the campus, and propel them toward successful degree completion.
Diaz-Martinez said UTEP has a long history of faculty commitment to mentor undergraduate students who are interested in conducting research, scholarly or creative projects. That commitment has led to a growing number of students involved in those activities. That number grew to 620 in 2016-17 from 496 in 2014-15, she said.
“This growth is evidence of UTEP’s commitment not only to research excellence, but to immersing our students in this process,” Diaz-Martinez said. “Eventually, I would like to see every single UTEP undergraduate student having the opportunity to conduct a research, scholarly or creative project. However, we will not be able to achieve this through the classic mentor-mentee model where one faculty member mentors a handful of students outside of class. This is why the efforts of faculty who develop CUREs are so important, since these courses provide opportunities for more students to conduct a research, scholarly or creative project, and thus develop all those important skills and connections while completing the academic requirements for their majors.”
Olimpo and Apodaca’s CURE focuses on public health, specifically as it pertains to the El Paso community. Students in the course work on projects such as air-quality monitoring, studying microbial diversity, and working with nursing students to train in hospital settings to minimize infections, among others. The projects are developed by the students, Apodaca said. The professors are merely facilitators.
“I had a lot of great research opportunities when I came to school here at UTEP,” Apodaca, an El Paso native, said. “I felt that the laboratory environment was the best way to learn science — through practice. I wanted to create that opportunity for students, but in a way that was much broader. I wanted a class that was both an internship and a research experience to show students that biology is important and relevant in other aspects, specifically, in relation to their community in terms of public health and health disparities.”
Olimpo and Apodaca’s CURE was implemented as a two-semester sequence during the 2017-18 academic year. Their students ranged in classifications and majors, something the two professors said adds another element in their push to extend access. They set out to be inclusive and encourage students who needed a space to try research.
“I was teaching biology and had majors in sociology and engineering in my class.” Apodaca said. “I would see completely sad faces, ‘Why am I taking biology? This is pointless.’ They are losing that intrinsic motivation to even be in the class. That really bothered me. There are really important things you can do in biology. It can help you whether you’re a social worker or engineer. So, the thought was, let’s create a space that provides that opportunity, that appreciation.”
Students have not only been drawn to that notion, they have flourished as part of it.
“For me, as a student, this class kind of gives me the initiative to ask questions and brainstorm ideas,” said Hantzopulos, a junior biochemistry major. “There’s more of a, ‘How can I reach out to people?’ and ‘How can I find ways to inform the public with our research?’ as opposed to a standard lab where you learn about a pipette. For me, because I’m more of a hands-on learner, I really like to look back and see how this applies to everything I’m going to be learning later. So, more than anything, it’s given me the motivation to think on my own about these types of questions, to look up articles about this stuff that I’m doing research on.”
Hantzopulos and Polar worked together in the spring to complete a research project they began in the fall. The pair targeted hospital associated infections. As part of their work, they surveyed students in the UTEP School of Nursing to learn more about hospital sanitizing protocols and hygiene practices. They also reached out to leaders and representatives at local hospitals and clinics to glean further insight.
They said the experience not only yielded quality research findings, it also exposed them to a slew of students and professionals who could potentially help foster their long-term career goals.
“It really helps you network,” Hantzopulos said. “You meet a lot of new people, especially in the science community. You keep being engaged in your career, essentially. Even in class, we have a sociology major here and maybe down the road I could say, ‘Hey, I need your opinion on this.’ In the end, it motivates me to graduate because it really gives me a hands-on idea of what I want to do as a career.”
The initial success of the CURE also has galvanized Olimpo and Apodaca, who say they hope to conduct another such course in the fall.
“We’re not just running a course that has a cool title,” Olimpo said. “They have to do the work. And they’ve done the work. I think they’ve done a fantastic job of getting their hands dirty and understanding that science is not just, Step 1: Take test tube out of the rack, Step 2: So on and so on. We certainly hope we can do it again.”
Author: Pablo Villa – UTEP Communications