New faculty fellowship to expand undergraduate research opportunities

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anil challa stream“You come and do research, and you realize there isn’t a real answer, that there are so many aspects to a fact," said Anil Chala, an instructor in UAB's Department of Genetics who has taught CURE-modeled classes, shown here working with a student in a lab. "It’s not just a statement in a textbook.”UAB’s research faculty ranks among the nation’s best-funded and is noted for exceptional mentoring and training that provides unparalleled opportunities for students as early as freshman year.

During the 2016-17 academic year, more than 6,700 UAB students enrolled in nearly 650 undergraduate research courses. Those students earned in excess of 20,300 credit hours conducting undergraduate research, up more than 15,000 hours — a 291 percent increase — from the 2009-10 year. 

Here undergraduates explore laser development and metabolic changes during heart failure; immunology and infectious diseases; fitness gaming; antimicrobial barriers; ancient burial rituals; gene-editing technologies; programming for drones, Birmingham’s relationship with communism and more.

The Office of Service Learning and Undergraduate Research wants to increase options for student research by expanding the capacity among faculty researchers. It is launching a one-year fellowship to accelerate the work of faculty eager to develop courses that promote team-based undergraduate research in the first or second years.

“Our fellows program allows exceptional, innovative professors to have a platform to develop and expand on ideas in a supportive environment,” said Gareth Jones, assistant director of Service Learning and Undergraduate Research. With that support, he said faculty can create even more opportunities for students to access research.


New ways to research

Many undergraduates who participate in research do so by seeking out one-on-one mentor relationships with faculty, hoping to earn a coveted spot in their lab. But Jones wants to expand the options available to freshman and sophomores.

“The end goal of the Faculty Fellows in Undergraduate Research program is to generate more opportunities for undergraduates to do research,” he said. “Team-based research courses could provide that.”

The faculty fellows program — structured around a year-long series of six workshops — will help faculty develop a strong background in team-based research pedagogy and create new courses or modify existing ones to include a research component. Faculty will explore theories, implementation and assessment of academic team-based research and ways to integrate this methodology into courses across disciplines. It also provides a $1,500 enhancement grant to each fellow to support course development and research.


CURE for students

Templates such as CUREs — short for Course-Based Undergraduate Research Experiences — and discussion facilitation instructions provided by the Interactivity Foundation will provide guidelines for creating and modifying courses. Ultimately, the goal is to give younger students the opportunity to participate in team-based research, which may be a better fit than mentor-based research partnerships, said Anil Challa, Ph.D., an instructor in UAB’s Department of Genetics.

FacFellowsURClick to enlargeChalla has taught CURE-modeled classes within UAB’s Science and Technology Honors Program during the past three years and is so passionate about the class model that he believes all freshman should be required to participate in one. Although the experience of individually mentored research is invaluable, he said, younger students often don’t seek out one-on-one partnerships; if they do, there are only a finite number of those to be had. Furthermore, he said those experiences can vary greatly depending on the mentors, the time allotted to the research project and the training they receive.

“Imagine a freshman going into a mentored research experience,” Challa said. “It can be varied, and students can be diffident and scared. In a course-based [research experience], those students would have peers to talk to and share ideas with, and the parameters are defined. When they are in a cohort, they can have a lot of fun.”

Providing a team-based research environment can help younger students cope with realities of research often realized in their first few years at a university: that there is often not a distinct, simple answer.

“Until high school, many students get the impression that everything is known — that you just have to learn it,” Challa said. “Then you come and do research, and you realize there isn’t a real answer, that there are so many aspects to a fact. It’s not just a statement in a textbook.”

Giving younger students more ways to experience research can provide another anchor and context for the rest of their learning experience, Challa added.

“It’s hard to grapple with concepts,” he said. “But once they do a lab course, once they solve a problem, they are able to place [that concept]. It was a wild landscape, but now they have flagposts they’ve pitched themselves so they can reference later.”


Faculty collaborations

The interdisciplinary nature of the fellows program also will enable faculty to learn from each other’s experiences, Jones said.

The deadline for applications to the Faculty Fellows in Undergraduate Research program is June 30. Information about eligibility and the selection process is available online.

The fellows program is based on UAB’s Faculty Fellows in Engaged Scholarship program, a highly successful one-year fellowship that helps faculty incorporate service-learning into curricula. Jones said that program has demonstrated that collaboration among a cohort of faculty from all disciplines reveals new, different — and beneficial — perspectives.

“We want to promote that and build collaborations, working together to create something that is both artistic and scientific,” Jones said. “It might be beneficial for someone from STEM to look at art or film studies and think that the creative activity they’re doing is equivalent to what we’re doing with our research. We want to develop courses that offer multiple opportunities for entries into research.”

The deadline for applications to the Faculty Fellows in Undergraduate Research program is June 30. Information about eligibility and the selection process is available online.