Student Meaning Making & Interest Maintenance in a Course-Based Undergraduate Research Experience

Julia Gill
Project Manager
Yale University

Need and Guiding Question: Course-based undergraduate research experiences (CUREs) are heralded as a great innovation in college STEM education, combining authentic characteristics of an instructor’s research lab with the larger capacity of a course environment. Evidence suggests CUREs benefit students’ STEM knowledge, motivation, and academic plans more than traditional courses, while delivering positive outcomes to students from marginalized groups. These encouraging findings led to rapid growth of CUREs across the U.S. Yet, more needs to be known about what parts of the CURE learning process most benefit students. Through our IUSE award on CUREs (DUE #1856150), we proposed to explore: which CURE course features are implemented across institutions and disciplines (e.g., biomedical engineering vs. microbiology), how CURE features contribute to positive student outcomes, and how student interest evolves over time. When the Covid-19 pandemic began, we recognized CUREs would change in response to the online course environment and received a second IUSE grant (RAPID DUE #2027658) to evaluate the implications of the emergency online transition for course decision-making and student outcomes, thus expanding the definition of a CURE beyond a primary focus on scientific experimentation. Outcomes: Here we present findings on how student interest evolves in a CURE through a case study of the spring 2020 semester, when courses transitioned online in March 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic (the findings were uncovered through both IUSE grant mechanisms). The data from spring 2020 show how student interest, challenge, and frustration can manifest and rebound in a CURE despite extreme course challenges. Before online coursework began, we distributed student interest, challenge, and frustration measures in four undergraduate CUREs (n=41). We did not expect the shift to online coursework and therefore, the data offer a singular view into the development of student outcome variables associated with in-person and online CURE learning contexts. The data show 1) a drop in situational interest after the shift to online coursework, and 2) students who made meaningful connections between coursework and their personal, academic, or career goals (high “meaning making” students) were more likely to view the online-transitioned CURE positively. These attitudes helped students achieve greater situational interest, signifying the capacity of meaning making to increase student resilience to course challenges. This spring 2022 semester, we are studying student interest development and meaning making in 11 in-person CUREs (n=244). Preliminary analyses from this semester will be included in the poster.Broader Impacts: Our preliminary findings that 1) interest fluctuates throughout a semester, and 2) meaning making mitigates decline in interest, have several implications for college STEM instructors and students. CUREs are intended to be more engaging and interesting than traditional lab courses in order to retain student interest and persistence in STEM. Our data suggest instructors must help students create meaning in their coursework to sustain their interest and engagement. By harnessing the power of meaning making, instructors can deliver more of the intended CURE course benefits to students, better maintain their interest, and retain more students in STEM.


Mark Graham, Yale University, New Haven, CT; Lia Crowley, Yale University, New Haven, CT; Julia Gill, Yale University, New Haven, CT