Skip to main content

Research and Teaching

Course-Based Research in the First Semester of College

Teaching Inquiry and Building Community Using Constructed Wetlands for Greywater Treatment

Journal of College Science Teaching—March/April 2020 (Volume 49, Issue 4)

By Christina Cianfrani and Sarah Hews

Undergraduate students are increasingly aware of complex global challenges and have a strong desire to take action and create change. Course-based undergraduate research experiences can offer a wide range of students the opportunity to gain skills needed to address these challenges. At a small liberal arts college in New England, we developed the Integrated Sciences First-Year Program (ISFP) to engage our students and support them in developing these important skills in their first year while building a community of learners. We designed ISFP-I (fall semester) for both science concentrators and nonconcentrators to conduct collaborative research in teams across three linked courses in hydrology, mathematical modeling, and microbiology. Students explored sustainable building practices using a new building on campus. We used pre-/postcourse surveys, student self-evaluations, and faculty evaluations of student work to assess student progress on the goals of learning inquiry and building community. During the three-year pilot program (2015–2018), we found students showed growth in science content and skills as well as changes in attitudes and understanding of the nature and process of science. Further, the collaborative nature of the courses helped socialize students on campus and cultivate an intellectual community within the sciences.


Our current global challenges such as climate change, sustainable development, and food security require an evidence-based scientific approach that includes creativity, interdisciplinary thinking, and collaboration. Undergraduate research experiences, such as independent projects with faculty and summer internships, provide students with opportunities to develop these skills and generate an understanding of complex systems, but they are competitive and limited to few students (Graham et al., 2013; Lopatto, 2004, 2007, 2009; NRC, 2003; PCAST, 2012). Embedding research experiences within courses offers the opportunity to develop important skills to a broader range of students, including both science concentrators and nonscience concentrators (Awong-Taylor et al., 2016; Ballen et al., 2017; Bangera & Brownell, 2014; Brownell & Kloser, 2015; Shaffer et al., 2014). Through these course-based undergraduate research experiences (CUREs), students are exposed to the authentic nature and process of science, which can lead to both retaining more students in science, as well as developing an increased appreciation and understanding of science that can be applied in other fields of study and in everyday life (Graham et al., 2013).

At our small liberal arts college in New England, our entering undergraduate students are increasingly aware of these global challenges and have a strong desire to take action and create change. While independent research opportunities are often available at the upper undergraduate level, we wanted to harness our first-year students’ enthusiasm, provide research experiences more broadly accessible regardless of major and preparation, guide students in moving from large challenges to research questions, and engage them in developing important skills (e.g., creativity, interdisciplinary thinking, and collaboration). To accomplish this, we designed the Integrated Sciences First-Year Program (ISFP) to provide first-year students with an authentic science experience centered on a complex system or large interdisciplinary problem. The ISFP includes first-semester collaborative courses (ISFP-I) accessible to both science concentrators and nonscience concentrators, a second semester independent research projects course (ISFP-II), and a monthlong summer research experience (ISFP-III) (Figure 1). External funding from a donor was secured to support the pilot of ISFP-III; however, ISFP-I and ISFP-II were taught as part of regular faculty teaching loads and required no extra financial support. Rather than create a pipeline that requires sequential progress through the program, we created pathways and opportunities for students to take any of the ISFP components in any order, depending on their interests and background. This program is unique in that it targets first-year students and has the dual goals of introducing the nature and process of science and building community. It also offers an alternative path into the sciences compared to general introductory or overview courses.

Components of the Integrated Sciences First-Year Program. Arrows indicate pathways into and out of the program.

Components of the Integrated Sciences First-Year Program. Arrows indicate pathways into and out of the program.

For the first three years of the program, academic years 2015–2018, we chose the R.W. Kern Center, a newly constructed building on campus as the system of focus. Built to the Living Building Challenge standard (LBC) (International Living Future Institute, 2018), this building aims to connect occupants with the built environment and invite inquiry, foster collaboration and community, and address broadly relevant themes of sustainability. Specifically, ISFP-I focused on the greywater constructed wetland treatment system and provided a means to connect students with the campus from the moment they arrived while providing a local example of a system with global implications.

This article describes our work developing and assessing ISFP-I during the pilot years of 2015–2018. ISFP-I contains all the elements for a CURE as described by Auchincloss (2014), including use of scientific practices, discovery, broadly relevant or important work, collaboration, and iteration, and was designed to attract both concentrators and nonconcentrators.

ISFP-I: Collaborative courses

We identified two overarching goals for ISFP-I: (1) to increase science learning by focusing on both the process of inquiry and the skills involved in scientific exploration; and (2) to build community among first-year students and introduce them to a range of possible mentors (both peer and faculty) (Table 1). We believe achieving these goals in the first semester of college can have significant impacts on how (and if) students engage with the sciences throughout their college careers and beyond college.

Table 1. Goals for ISFP-I fall semester collaborative courses.

Learning inquiry

See relevance of science/context

Learn how to design/ask research questions

Develop skills (access primary literature, analyze and collect quantitative data, writing, etc.)

Present data and findings to broad audience

Building community

Create social groups and networks

Experience what it means to be a “scientist”

Create a feeling of belonging in the sciences and at the college

Introduce students to a range of mentors

To accomplish these goals, we designed a set of three distinct but linked courses all centered on the campus building system (Table 2). Each of the courses met two times per week within faculty disciplines (i.e., hydrology, mathematical modeling, and microbiology) and the three courses met together once per week to form collaborative interdisciplinary teams to complete laboratory activities. Throughout the semester students also met with community members including campus facilities staff, builders, designers, and architects.

Table 2. Major themes covered in each of the three linked courses in ISFP-I.

Sustainable water use/reuse

Modeling systems

Microbes in a living building

Systems thinking

Systems thinking

Systems thinking

Global water resources issues

Stock and flow diagrams

Microbial diversity

Nitrogen pollution

Differential equation equivalents

Microbial respiration

Wetland hydrology

Varying parameters

Nitrogen cycle

Biogeochemical cycling

Exploring dynamics

Cultivating bacteria

Water quality sampling


Redox reactions

Note: Students enrolled in one of the three courses, and all courses were taught simultaneously. Each course met twice a week to cover content listed, and all courses met together once a week to complete interdisciplinary labs.

Collaborative laboratories

Each Friday (and occasionally at other times during the semester), all three courses met together to form interdisciplinary groups and complete inquiry-based experiments to assess the design and functioning of the greywater treatment constructed wetlands. Students toured the R.W. Kern Center constructed wetland facility and then built mesocosms that mimicked the functioning of the in situ wetlands (Figure 2). Laboratory activities were designed to balance scaffolded inquiry with true discovery.

In situ greywater treatment system (left) including indoor vertical flow wetlands and outdoor horizontal flow wetlands and student- constructed mesocosms (right) designed to mimic the functioning of the <i>in situ</i> wetlands.

In situ greywater treatment system (left) including indoor vertical flow wetlands and outdoor horizontal flow wetlands and student- constructed mesocosms (right) designed to mimic the functioning of the in situ wetlands.

Completing the lab activities and developing a complete understanding of the system required knowledge from all disciplines. Therefore, each lab group consisted of one student from each course. Students were prepped within their individual courses to act as the “expert” in their field and generated summary informational packets for their lab groups. Multiple teaching assistants and all three faculty members also supported students throughout the lab periods.

Students completed an iterative process of conceptually modeling the system, measuring components of the system (water quality and microbial activity), and refining their model. They wrote multiple drafts of two major lab reports, receiving both instructor and peer feedback, to demonstrate their understanding of the system and work on data analysis and science writing.

We designed the final course project to give students multiple ways to demonstrate their knowledge and learning and to provide them with a public opportunity to share their work with the broader college community. Students were given field data that had been recently sampled from the greywater treatment system and were tasked with using their understanding of the mesocosm wetlands to make sense of it. Students presented their work in a poster symposium open to the public with specially invited guests, including members of campus facilities, the Dean of Natural Science, our college president, and the lead donor of the project. Students also created 1–3 minute videos highlighting their work over the semester (Figure 3).

Workflow for the interdisciplinary labs throughout the semester.

Workflow for the interdisciplinary labs throughout the semester.


The ISFP-I collaborative courses were designed to satisfy the physical and biological science distribution area required as part of the first-year program for both science concentrators and nonconcentrators. As such, there were no prerequisites for any of the courses and each class contained a mix of students, some with significant science backgrounds and some without. Because of facility constraints, each individual course was capped at 15 students so that there would be a maximum of 45 students in the combined laboratory activities. In the three-year pilot of ISFP-I, 98 students completed the courses.


We used the following measures to assess the success of the three-year pilot in meeting program goals: 1.Pre-/postsurveys: Short surveys created by faculty to assess the interest of students in the subject matter and their comfort with various skills. 2.Reflective student self-evaluations postcourse (as part of every course at the college) (referred to below as student self-evaluations). 3.Student work as assessed by faculty using rubrics modified from the Association of American Colleges & Universities VALUE rubrics (Rhodes, 2009) for lab reports, primary literature, integrative learning, and presentations. Student work was summarized in narrative final course evaluations written by faculty (referred to below as faculty evaluations).

The pre- and postsurveys assessed (using a Likert scale) student comfort with reading primary literature, reading figures/tables/graphs and understanding them, finding and using data, writing project reports/proposals, and working collaboratively in groups. In year three, we adjusted the surveys, removing skill-specific questions and adding new questions focused on community building outcomes. Student responses were summed across the three pilot years, categorizing the percentage of students who “Strongly Agreed” or “Agreed” with specific questions. Percent change from pre- to postsurvey was reported. Faculty administered the presurvey within the first two weeks of the semester and the postsurvey during the last week. Surveys remained optional, but strongly encouraged, and response rates varied from 60–95% over the three years with an overall average response rate of 75%.

Our college’s progressive educational model uses narrative evaluations in multiple forms: student reflective self-evaluations and faculty final course evaluations in lieu of grades. Students write reflective self-evaluations assessing their learning and effort at the end of every class and as part of their divisional portfolios (i.e., first-year program, concentration, and senior capstone). Faculty provide an assessment and summary of student progress over the semester as well as their demonstrated skills and abilities in final course evaluations relative to criteria they establish for their courses.

We used both types of narrative evaluations as assessment tools by enhancing them to reflect our project goals (enhancements described below). We then analyzed them with respect to our goals and looked for major themes that emerged. Evaluations were coded using NVivo qualitative data analysis software (QSR International) according to identified themes. The two lead faculty of the program reviewed and confirmed emergent themes across all narrative evaluations. Together these two assessment tools complemented the pre-and postsurveys by giving deeper insights and providing student and faculty perspectives in their own voices.

Student self-evaluations for the ISFP-I collaborative courses were guided by the questions: What were your goals for the course? What were the stated goals for the course? How would you assess your effort in the course? What was it like to work collaboratively with two other classes and what were the benefits/challenges? What will you most take away from this class moving forward? Ninety-seven percent of students over the three-year pilot completed student self-evaluations.

Throughout the semester, faculty used modified versions of the AACU VALUE rubrics (Rhodes, 2009) to assess student work. Students’ portfolios of work were assessed at the end of the semester and reflected in Faculty Evaluations. While individual faculty wrote evaluations for students in their specific courses, lab reports and final project assessments were developed collaboratively by all three faculty members. Faculty evaluations were available for every student who received credit for the fall courses (97% of students who began the courses received faculty evaluations).

We received College Institutional Review Board approval for the research previously described and the collection of all assessment data for the three-year pilot program.


Across all assessment tools, several major themes emerged, including positive gains and challenges. Most students showed gains in basic science inquiry skills such as how to ask research questions, how to read the primary literature, and how to collect and synthesize data. Students also showed shifts in attitudes about science as a field and began to recognize how science can be used in addressing topics relevant to their lives. The complexity of our study system, however, posed challenges as well. Making connections across disciplines to make sense of messy real-time data was an ambitious goal that students met with varying levels of success. Many students also noted struggling with group work and managing group expectations, workload, and attitudes.

Outcome: Introduce students to the process of scientific inquiry and develop skills

Our pre-/postsurvey data showed that students reported modest gains in skills related to reading and understanding the primary literature; finding, using, and analyzing data; and writing project reports (Table 3). Ironically, there was a slight decrease (-1%) in their comfort working collaboratively, even though the courses were designed specifically to support development of that skill.

Table 3. Quantitative data from pre-/postsurveys administered to students.

Number of students responding (pre-/post-)

Strongly agree or agree




I am comfortable reading primary literature (scientific journal articles).





I am comfortable reading figures, tables, graphs, etc., and understanding them.





I am comfortable finding and using data.





I am comfortable writing project reports and proposals.





I am comfortable working collaboratively in groups.





The student self-evaluations provided a deeper, more nuanced look at the pre-/postsurvey findings. Specifically, regarding gains in understanding and skills, students discussed the importance of the applied nature of the studied content, how the structure of the course facilitated their learning, and the benefits of collaboration.

Student reflections indicated that the applied nature of their semester work had a significant impact on their interest and understanding of how science was relevant to their lives (both concentrators and nonconcentrators). It served to broaden their perspective of what science can be used for, how it can be applied, and how to connect small tasks to the bigger picture.

The authentic nature of the lab experiments also resonated with students and motivated them in their studies.

In making these connections, the use of systems thinking in particular impacted students both within and beyond the class.

Students also specifically commented on how the structure of the course gave them confidence in learning and practicing their scientific skills. They appreciated the multiple types of assignments used to increase their understanding of the system and the opportunities to revise their work and obtain feedback.

Finally, most students discussed their experience in the collaborative learning environment. Students mentioned how collaboration changed their view of science from a solitary endeavor to a process that requires interdisciplinary efforts. They shared positive impacts, such as sharing knowledge, learning leadership skills, having fun, and learning more than they would have in one class, as well as challenges, such as difficult group dynamics, problems finding time to meet, uneven distribution of work, feeling lost if a group’s “expert” was not present.

The faculty evaluations provided a comparative set of data on student outcomes and provided evidence that students did accomplish ISFP-I goals. Importantly, the faculty evaluation data tracked closely to and offered a confirmation of the student self- reported data.

Overall, faculty noted a high level of engagement with the material from the majority of students. While the level of progress varied, almost all students showed growth in at least some of the inquiry and foundational science skills. The variety of assignments (i.e., primary literature reviews, group lab reports, oral presentations, poster sessions, videos) gave faculty multiple ways to assess student learning and enabled faculty to be specific about which skills students had mastered and those that still needed work.

Analysis of the faculty evaluations revealed how the final group projects (posters and videos) in particular provided a useful synthesis of students’ work and the best glimpse into student improvement and growth. These final projects enabled faculty to assess student learning in an authentic environment (public poster session) and even those students who struggled during the semester showed an impressive level of understanding of the complex systems studied, especially for first-year, first-semester students.

Outcome: Build community

We designed ISFP-I to have the additional benefit of developing an intellectual and social community for first-year students. The joint laboratories provided a larger potential pool of “classmates” from the approximately 15 in their own class to approximately 40 in collaborative labs. We argue that by increasing the number of students they interacted with during the first semester of college, we broadened the possible pool of peers/friends. Similarly, rather than interacting with only one faculty member and one teaching assistant, students regularly interacted with three faculty members and three to six teaching assistants who could serve as potential mentors.

While we did not directly assess student socialization during the first two years of the program, we added a few questions on the postcourse survey in year three. The results suggest that the collaborative courses did in fact offer students an important social outlet their first semester in college. Seventy-one percent of students indicated that they had “made friends in the course,” 54% indicated that the class “was important to my social experience as I adjusted to [college],” and 58% indicated that they “met other students who share my academic interests.” These findings confirmed anecdotal evidence provided by students and, together, suggest that our intuition was correct. Moving forward, we plan to assess and track community building more directly.

Outcome: Impact for faculty

Similar to the results reported by Shortlidge et al. (2016) analyzing faculty perspectives on developing and teaching CUREs, we, as participating faculty, have also identified gains and challenges based on our experiences with ISFP-I. For example, new research collaborations have formed among the faculty to study the building systems more formally. In the first three years of the program we applied for and received two external research grants and gave 16 conference presentations on topics both in educational practices and research based on our work in the courses. We have increased our number of advisees, both concentrator and nonconcentrators, as a result of the relationships developed through the courses, and, as such, have recruited more students for independent projects and summer-funded research. Finally, developing and teaching these courses has been fun and stimulating, has enabled us to model for students how “realworld” interdisciplinary scientific research occurs, and has provided an opportunity for each faculty member to learn new skills.


We designed the ISFP-I collaborative courses to introduce students to the nature and process of science while building a community of learners during students’ first year of college. Most students took these courses to satisfy distribution requirements and while they did not plan to continue in the sciences, showed growth in science content and skills, as well as improvements in attitudes and understanding. These students also identified the collaborative nature of the course as a benefit in introducing them to faculty and students on campus, even if they sometimes struggled with group work.

For students interested in concentrating in science, the opportunity to conduct authentic research so early in their career gave them the opportunity to gain experience, take risks, and see research in a broader context. It also helped them identify courses to take in subsequent years to more deeply engage with their research questions.

ISFP-I also provided increased mentoring opportunities for faculty and teaching assistants and helped to build community. Students developed closer relationships with multiple faculty members and teaching assistants than in traditional courses, which supported first-year students with their socialization on campus and within the sciences.

Finally, these courses benefited faculty in significant ways. We developed new research collaborations (which included many students from the program), gave multiple research talks (both in educational research and science research), and have also found the work rewarding. We have reveled in the opportunity to model for students how interdisciplinary science is actually done—with all the discovery, messiness, frustration, and excitement we experience in our professional research careers.

Our assessments of the first three years of the program demonstrated that first-year students are capable, with guidance, of working collaboratively to understand complex systems, distill large global challenges to testable research questions, and engage in authentic research explorations even before engaging deeply with traditional science content courses. Furthermore, structuring courses to foster collaboration can help cultivate an intellectual community, help students build social groups, and develop feelings of belonging in the greater scientific community.


We gratefully acknowledge financial support from Hampshire College through the Dr. Lucy Innovation in Education Fund, the Dr. Lucy Faculty Research Fund, the Summer Dean’s Faculty Development award, and the R.W. Kern Center and the Living Building Challenge Course Development and Implementation Grant. We thank Hampshire College professors Jason Tor, Seeta Sistla, and Steve Roof for their work with us on the collaborative courses and Christene DeJong for her assistance with assessment design, data collection, and data analysis. We thank all the students in the ISFP-I collaborative courses from 2015−2018 for their patience, excitement, willingness to experiment with us, and their feedback.

Christina Cianfrani ( is associate professor of hydrology and Sarah Hews is associate professor of mathematics, both in the School of Natural Science at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts.



Auchincloss L. C., Laursen S. L., Branchaw J. L., Eagan K., Graham M., Hanauer D. I.,…Lawrie G. (2014). Assessment of course-based undergraduate research experiences: A meeting report. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 13(1), 29–40.

Awong-Taylor J., Costa A. D., Giles G., Leader T., Pursell D., Runck C., & Mundie T. (2016). Undergraduate research for all: Addressing the elephant in the room. CUR Quarterly, 37(1), 11–19.

Ballen C. J., Blum J. E., Brownell S., Hebert S., Hewlett J., Klein J. R.,…McDonald E. A. (2017). A call to develop course-based undergraduate research experiences (CUREs) for nonmajors courses. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 16(2), mr2.

Bangera G., & Brownell S. E. (2014). Course-based undergraduate research experiences can make scientific research more inclusive. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 13(4), 602–606.

Brownell S. E., & Kloser M. J. (2015). Toward a conceptual framework for measuring the effectiveness of course-based undergraduate research experiences in undergraduate biology. Studies in Higher Education, 40(3), 525–544.

Graham M. J., Frederick J., Byars-Winston A., Hunter A.-B., & Handelsman J. (2013). Increasing persistence of college students in STEM. Science, 341(6153), 1455–1456.

International Living Future Institute. (2018). The living building challenge

Lopatto D. (2004). Survey of undergraduate research experiences (SURE): First findings. Cell Biology Education, 3(4), 270–277.

Lopatto D. (2007). Undergraduate research experiences support science career decisions and active learning. CBE Life Sciences Education, 6(4), 297–306.

Lopatto D. (2009). Science in solution: The impact of undergraduate research on student learning. Tucson, AZ: Research Corporation for Science Advancement.

National Research Council (NRC). (2003). Improving undergraduate instruction in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST). (2012). Engage to excel: Producing one million additional STEM graduates. Washington, DC: Executive Office of the President.

Rhodes T. (2009). Assessing outcomes and improving achievement: Tips and tools for using the rubrics. Washington, DC: Association for American Colleges and Universities.

Shaffer C. D., Alvarez C. J., Bednarski A. E., Dunbar D., Goodman A. L., Reinke C.,…Rosenwald A. G. (2014). A course-based research experience: How benefits change with increased investment in instructional time. CBE Life Sciences Education, 13(1), 111–130.

Shortlidge E. E., Bangera G., & Brownell S. E. (2016). Faculty perspectives on developing and teaching course-based undergraduate research experiences. BioScience, 66(1), 54–62.

Environmental Science Inquiry Preservice Science Education Teacher Preparation Teaching Strategies Postsecondary College

Asset 2