Integrating CUREs in Ongoing Research: Undergraduates as Active Participants in the Discovery of Biodegrading Thermophiles

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Research-based courses are a powerful way to engage undergraduates in the scientific process while simultaneously teaching participants relevant laboratory, analysis, and scientific communication skills. In most programs, students conduct a simulated project which effectively improves student conceptions of scientific thinking but does not produce research-quality data. The course described here delivered an authentic research experience by assigning undergraduates an objective from an active grant-funded project. Participants contributed to research aimed at culturing biodegrading thermophiles from hot springs in Yellowstone National Park. Students participated in a backcountry field experience, collecting environmental samples of their choosing and determining appropriate culturing conditions. Following high-temperature incubations, 16S rRNA gene sequencing identified enriched microbial populations, with analytical and microscopy methods tracking degradation and growth. Importantly, several teams successfully cultivated thermophilic plastic-degrading consortia. Student learning was assessed using several methods, including grade distributions on assignments and statistical comparisons of pre- and posttests. A consistent and, in most cases, statistically significant increase was observed in the students’ posttest scores. The grade distribution on summative assessments also suggests that students achieved the desired learning outcomes. Student perceptions of their learning and experience gains were high, with participants reporting improvements in components emphasized in the research activities. Overall, the findings highlight how involving undergraduates in real-world research projects can enhance student interest and ownership of scientific research, along with contributing quality data that inform active studies.




Peyton, Brent M., and Dana J. Skorupa. “Integrating CUREs in Ongoing Research: Undergraduates as Active Participants in the Discovery of Biodegrading Thermophiles.” Journal of Microbiology & Biology Education 22, no. 2 (September 10, 2021). doi:10.1128/jmbe.00102-21.
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