A CURE for Undergraduate Research Inequities?

This post is part of a series by the Astrobites DEI Committee.

If you’ve ever been interested in pursuing a graduate degree in a scientific field, the most common piece of advice you’ve probably heard is “do research.” It can help you understand what topics you’re interested in, it can teach you key skills for your field, it’s been linked to degree retention and perhaps most importantly it’s quickly becoming a silent prerequisite for admission to graduate school. But for some students, “do research” is a lot easier said than done. Today we explore what barriers exist and one potential solution to help make research more accessible for a broader range of undergraduate students. 

Research Inequities

When we talk about the sort of research that can be done by undergraduates, the implied structure is an independent project done at an academic institution, usually in the form of a summer internship or Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program. But there are several issues with these programs that might impact certain populations of students more than others, as outlined in depth in this paper

The first barrier is simply a lack of awareness of what research opportunities exist and why they are important. This is often the case for first generation students who aren’t familiar with the academia track in the sciences. This is also an issue for students at non-research institutions or community colleges where there is less exposure to faculty who conduct research and participation in research projects is not the norm. 

Even for those who are aware and interested in research, there is the issue of connecting with mentors. For almost every traditional research opportunity, students need to make the first step of applying or reaching out to faculty. However, this is not always a straightforward process and can be much more difficult for certain demographics of students. Research has shown that students from upper-class families are more likely to communicate with faculty and assist with research than those from low- or middle-class backgrounds or first generation students. There is also evidence for gender differences in the experiences of undergraduates, with women expressing lower levels of self-confidence and self-efficacy, and not engaging as much in class, all of which can make it more difficult to apply to research experiences or build relationships with professors. 

Finally there’s  the question of financial ability to participate in research. Many research experiences organized directly with faculty at a student’s institution offer low salaries or only course credit. Programs such as REUs offer housing and stipends, but these are often not adequate for non-traditional students, such as those with children or who are primary caretakers of family members. Most REUs also require uprooting to another city for the summer, which can be similarly difficult for students in those positions. 

On the selection side, oftentimes hiring practices can serve to further reduce diversity in the types of students participating in research. Applications with high GPAs and prior research experience are generally considered stronger candidates, which continues to select for a group of students with prior advantages. There are also unconscious biases around race and gender that can play a role in any hiring decision. 

All these factors combined lead to the exclusion of non-traditional students and set up unfair barriers for young scientists based on socioeconomic status, first-generation status, race, and gender. 

What can be done?

Luckily, it’s not all bad news in the field of undergraduate research. A solution that is growing in popularity at some major US institutions is to restructure research experiences in a way that doesn’t create a bottleneck and can hopefully reduce inequities. This solution is Course-Based Undergraduate Research Experiences, or CUREs. CUREs can vary significantly in design and structure, but they are all focused on providing an authentic research experience for students in a classroom setting. Compared to other research experiences, they have a very low barrier of entry,  where students simply need to meet the prerequisites to enroll, and gain credit for their participation. 

These unique research opportunities can expose students to some of the benefits of traditional undergraduate research, including improved self-confidence, increase in science content knowledge, career clarification, and a higher reported sense of belonging. They can also offer benefits not seen in traditional REU-type structures, such as improved collaboration skills due to working with large groups of classmates instead of in an individual mentor-mentee environment. CURES can also be used to teach some of the unspoken norms of research and help students prepare for more independent experiences later on. 

CUREs have been popular in biology for many years, and have recently begun to be integrated into physics and astronomy curriculum. Students in astronomy CUREs have worked on projects such as measuring properties of brown dwarfs, identifying characteristics of solar flares, and updating parameters of exoplanet transits. These CUREs have been shown to improve student’s sense of belonging in science, their understanding of scientific concepts, and their sense of self-efficacy.  However, there has been limited research so far into the demographics of CURE participants or their continuation into graduate school. Additionally, many astrophysics CUREs offered today are relatively small in size (<25 students) and are offered as upper level courses, which some have argued reduces the potential benefits of CUREs. With that being said, we are still in the early stages of CURE development, and they show great promise for broadening access to research experiences and bringing a more diverse group of students into science. 

Edited by Isabella Trierweiler and Heather Hewitt 

Featured image credit: NASA/ESA/STScI/Skylar Grayson

About Skylar Grayson

Skylar Grayson is an Astrophysics PhD Candidate and NSF Graduate Research Fellow at Arizona State University. Her primary research focuses on AGN feedback processes in cosmological simulations. She also works in astronomy education research, studying online learners in both undergraduate and free-choice environments. In her free time, Skylar keeps herself busy doing science communication on social media, playing drums and guitar, and crocheting!

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