Research & Teaching
The Effectiveness of a Microgrant
Journal of College Science Teaching—May/June 2023 (Volume 52, Issue 5)
By Rebecca Friesen and Adriana Cimetta
In 1997, Russell Edgerton presented his education white paper to the Pew Forum on Undergraduate Learning and advocated for the use of undergraduate research experiences (UREs) as a means of increasing student retention. A growing body of research continues to support Edgerton’s exhortation, as UREs have consistently demonstrated that they result in increased student achievement, retention, engagement, and persistence, especially among students from underrepresented populations (Chemers et al., 2011; Jones et al., 2010; Schultz et al., 2011). As a result, increasing numbers of faculty members are abandoning traditional lectures in favor of more inquiry-based practices (Brainard, 2007; Gormally et al., 2011).
Transforming a program to include more UREs is time-consuming and expensive because doing so requires additional staff and supplies. In addition to funding, this change requires time and additional labor from faculty members. Competing university interests and tightening budgets necessitate finding effective and affordable ways to implement this transformation. Demonstrating the benefits and drawbacks of a microgrant may reveal a feasible means of change, yet minimal research has examined the effectiveness of a microgrant for facilitating change.
The Council on Undergraduate Research (CUR) was given a grant (NSF DUE IUSE Grant Number 1625354) from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to offer microgrants ($2,000 per department per year) to 12 universities to help them integrate research-based curricula into departmental cultures and identify strategies that would support institutional cultural change. The CUR offered its grantees flexibility in how they accomplished these goals, but the funds were required to directly assist the project’s curriculum innovations or to leverage internal support. Thus, the purpose of this study was to document the perceptions and experiences of the project leaders of the Council on Undergraduate Research Transformation Project (CURTP). The study addressed the following research question: What are the contributions and limits of a microgrant for transforming department curricula and university culture to integrate undergraduate research?
Traditionally, research opportunities for undergraduates have been limited to apprenticeships offered to only a few upperclass students with high grades, compounding existing disparities (Bangera & Brownell, 2014). Thus, this project sought to provide UREs within the curriculum, thereby expanding access for more students. Because of the collegial culture of universities, building coalitions among groups is often effective for implementing departmental change (Kezar et al., 2018). In addition, supportive department chairs or significant senior faculty members often help move projects forward and transform cultures (Brew & Mantai, 2017; Bystydzienski et al., 2017; Hall & Hord, 2011). Each change initiative requires supportive leadership and a flexible, contextually sensitive approach that evolves as unexpected opportunities present new ways to leverage change (Kezar & Eckel, 2002).
Implementing inquiry-based curricula, including training and preparation, also requires time and resources that many faculty members feel they lack, especially when coupled with the time they spend seeking tenure or doing additional administrative work (Greer et al., 2010; Lopatto, 2004; Moore et al., 2007). Many faculty members report that their institutions lack the resources to implement UREs (Shortlidge et al., 2016; Spell et al., 2014). Guiding hundreds of students through research experiences requires more human capital than educating the same number of students in a lecture course with one professor. Other costs associated with UREs include additional laboratory equipment and supplies (Burnette & Wessler, 2013; Harvey et al., 2014; Rowland et al., 2012). Since the beginning of 2020, the NSF awarded more than $68 million to nearly 2,000 institutions to implement UREs (National Science Foundation, 2022). Despite that substantial amount, the NSF cannot fully fund all efforts to increase access to UREs. Thus, this project sought to discover the effectiveness of a microgrant for facilitating curriculum transformation.
This study focused on a microgrant awarded to the chemistry and biology departments at a public research university located in the United States. Established as a land-grant university, the institution enrolls more than 45,000 students in nearly 20 separate colleges and schools. Considered a “more selective” university by U.S. News & World Report in 2020 (U.S. News & World Report, 2022), this institution admits approximately 82% of its applicants and has been designated as a Hispanic-Serving Institution by the U.S. Department of Education. This university boasts a strong history of undergraduate research, offering a “100% Engagement” initiative that rewards students with an “Engaged Learning Experience” notation on their transcripts.
The proportional enrollment of White students has decreased over the past 20 years, but the proportional enrollment of Hispanic, Black, American Indian, and Asian American students has increased. In 2020, the university’s undergraduate student body had the following composition: 64.9% White, 28.3% Hispanic, 9.4% Asian, 6.5% Black, 3.2% American Indian or Alaska Native, and 0.9% Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander (based on inclusive race and ethnicity). In addition, the proportion of first-time, full-time Pell Grant recipients (i.e., students with exceptional financial need) has increased. This initiative takes place within and responds to this changing student landscape in its design.
Two departments (chemistry and biology) at the university were given one of the microgrants from the CUR to integrate undergraduate research experiences into their curricula. In addition to a microgrant, the funder provided grantees with consultants who could offer guidance, feedback, and directives during annual site visits and regular conference calls. Although the purpose of the grant project was to increase access to UREs, disciplinary and departmental differences required the departments to focus on different activities and objectives.
The chemistry department built a scaffolded curriculum matrix to ensure a progressive acquisition of research skills, revised experimental guides and scientific argument templates, assessed student skill improvement, and surveyed students to determine changes in their confidence with experimental techniques. The biology department expanded a research-rich introductory course, introduced a freshmen colloquia, and surveyed students to better understand and address their needs. Both departments also surveyed students regarding their research experiences and developed teaching assistant training. Although each department pursued the goal differently, both sought to increase access to the benefits of UREs.
Because this was a qualitative study, we acknowledge our positionality in relation to this research. The interviewer had no prior relationship with the participants or association with their departments, and this likely facilitated the building of rapport and trust more easily with the participants. Because we are associated with this institution, we have potential for bias toward seeing these efforts as successful. Our awareness of possible bias heightened our critique of our own interpretations, and we sought to increase trustworthiness by member-checking, triangulating among multiple participants and document analysis, and peer debriefing.
We used convenience and purposive sampling by selectinginformation-richparticipants.Our sample consisted of one administrator and four professors, including two tenured faculty members and two career-track faculty members. Including the perspectives of the administration, research faculty, instructors, and lab managers enabled collection of data from key aspects of the project. Pseudonyms are used to protect participants’ anonymity.
We captured data from document analysis and face-to-face interviews with four key informants, professors who led the grant project. Our key informants (Merriam, 1998; Payne & Payne, 2004) were intimately involved in developing and leading the project, so they were able to offer rich information regarding obstacles they faced, opportunities they found, decisions they made, and reasons they made those decisions. Using case study methods enabled us to collect rich data that captured subtle factors that are difficult to measure (Flyvbjerg, 2006). The interviews took place 2½ years into the 4-year grant in order to ascertain participants’ perceptions of the preliminary processes to successfully launch departmental and institutional changes. The semistructured interview approach allowed us to explore non-anticipated issues. All interviews were recorded and transcribed, and they each lasted approximately 1 hour. The interviews took place between November and December 2019. In addition, document analysis was conducted at the beginning of the fourth year to corroborate and compare with the interviews. The analyzed documents included the grant proposal, annual reports, and a theory of change model developed from project meeting notes.
Analysis focused on examining the interview transcripts and relevant documents. Interview transcripts were reviewed to identify significant statements and phrases that indicated how the participants viewed the effects of the microgrant on facilitating change. The transcripts were initially read and reread by both researchers so they could become immersed in the data (Smith et al., 2009). Data were coded with evaluation coding, which uses a combination of descriptive and in vivo codes and aims to determine the degree to which a program or initiative achieves a standard (Saldaña, 2015). In this case, we sought to discover how well the microgrant facilitated curricular and cultural changes. We coded phrases that indicated changes attributable to the microgrant until themes emerged.
One researcher compiled themes and categorized highlighted statements that supported the themes (see Table 1). Themes and codes were checked and confirmed by the second researcher. After the emergent themes were identified, the researchers identified connections, similarities, and differences in the participants’ perceptions. Document analysis included an examination of the original grant plan, annual reports, and a theory of change model to identify changes in course offerings and departmental involvement in expanding UREs. Thick description enhances the transferability of this case study by enabling readers to determine how well their situation aligns with that of this study (Lincoln & Guba, 1985).
Seven themes emerged from the data analysis of the faculty perceptions of the microgrant for implementing change; these themes were supported by the document analysis. These categories included positive effects, such as the following: (i) the prominence of the funders opened doors; (ii) the grant connected people and ideas; (iii) the consultants offered expertise, inspired action, and advocated; and (iv) the project gave momentum to a current trajectory. However, we also found themes that (v) the process of change is slow; (vi) by itself, the microgrant provided insufficient resources; and (vii) the project was time-consuming.
This microgrant came from a prominent funder, which opened doors to additional funding, empowered action, and garnered attention. Being funded by the NSF, despite the small amount, meant this project had a spotlight on the importance of undergraduate research. Having the support of a well-respected funder elicited other support and provided a spark to the project.
The microgrant required the formation of a team of like-minded people who were interested in increasing UREs and retention. Because they had obligations to submit action plans and annual reports, they needed to meet regularly, share ideas, and establish common goals. One study participant, Maya, observed that “getting all the players at the same time together” produced a “good model for what you can do with just a community and accountability.”
One of the chemistry department’s primary projects involved scaffolding the curriculum to ensure students progressively gained research skills (CURTP Team, 2017). Maya described these discussions as “productive” and noted that even the disagreements were fruitful. Maya asserted that without the grant, they would not have had these meetings or the subsequent transformation.
Casandra highlighted the importance of connecting ideas, explaining that the idea of having freshman colloquia advanced because it aligned with the project’s goals and philosophy. She noted how various people played important roles in the project’s development, describing it as a “multiperson thing.” Likewise, Jackie explained that “everyone grasps onto a different piece of it. But you’re all there.”
In addition to department-specific meetings, the project included meetings with other departments and upper administration. Jackie pointed out that different departments can be independent, but connections can and should be made among initiatives. The meetings facilitated conversations about what they are doing and why, both within departments and across the college. Like gathering hot coals builds heat, bringing like-minded people and ideas together generated energy toward change.
Providing a third contribution of the microgrant, the consultants offered advice and inspired action. The project leaders described the consultants as very experienced and knowledgeable, offering a new perspective. Maya also noted that the consultants were especially helpful because they were from the same discipline as the project team and spoke the same “chemist language.” They identified areas in which the team could improve, pointing out deficiencies and how these could be addressed without being critical. The consultants understood where change was unlikely and where it was possible (CURTP Team, 2018).
The consultants suggested the biology department conduct a pilot study of their new research-rich introductory biology course to obtain data that could show the difference the course made with regard to student persistence and retention (CURTP Team, 2019). Doing so helped Casandra procure additional internal funding and gain the attention of the administration. Similarly, Jackie noted that the consultants taught the team how to find additional sources of funding and how to frame the project so it would align with the university’s new strategic plan.
The consultants inspired and emboldened new objectives. Referring to the research-rich introductory biology course pilot study, Casandra reported that she had been undecided on whether or not to scale it up, but the consultants encouraged and inspired her to move the project forward. As Casandra said, “It’s always good to have someone outside come in and get everyone’s ducks in a row.”
The consultants also served as outside expert advocates. They spoke with upper-level administrators on behalf of scaling up the research-rich biology course, which resulted in financial support (CURTP Team, 2021). Their outside expert status also bolstered calls for change within departments (CURTP Team, 2019). The consultants’ advising, emboldening, and advocating provided important fuel for facilitating change.
The project gave momentum to the current trajectory. Each of the team members described the existing mindset and activities that supported UREs before they pursued the microgrant. All of the participants perceived themselves and their fellow participants as interested and passionate about UREs and student success.
In each department, different people had been focusing on UREs. However, David noted that the project forced them to think more deeply about what it means to create those experiences and collaborate with colleagues in other departments participating in the grant. Casandra explained:
If you’re already poised for change, you already know what you want to do and how you’re going to do it, and you have resources for it, then it can help you connect to take it to the next level.
The mission of the grant project aligned with what the team members were already thinking and doing and gave the project momentum.
The different departmental cultures also affected how the project was implemented. Jackie explained that change can happen in any department, but the way it should be approached can be different. She added, “You have to understand the temperature and the lay of the land and what you can do within that system.”
The focus of the program adapted as new needs were detected. The faculty members realized that the teaching assistants were “just doing whatever they want” and lacked the skills to implement the new curriculum. Maya said the teaching assistants were positive about the change, but “they just don’t know how to do it.” Thus, the focus of the project pivoted to training the teaching assistants (CURTP Team, 2021). Tracine noted that training the teaching assistants contributed to long-term change because teaching assistants may become faculty members in the future.
Because of the changing student population, the biology department sought to determine the needs of the students by surveying them (CURTP Team, 2018). After reviewing the results, the department team discussed ways they could address these needs, particularly focusing on equitable access to UREs (CURTP Team, 2019). Jackie explained that this discussion helped the department better understand the barriers many students face to doing research.
The momentum has spread to other faculty members who were inspired by this project and wanted to incorporate similar approaches. David described other professors who started trying new things in their courses. Curricular reform became an important part of department conversations (CURTP Team, 2018). Jackie explained, “You’ve got to get buy-in, you’ve got to get some ‘swell.’ You’ve got to be able to connect ideas that people already have with this initiative.”
The momentum has led to planning for future initiatives, starting with disseminating talks or discussions to show the effects of this program (CURTP Team, 2018). The consultants have suggested parlaying the project’s data and momentum into a larger NSF grant. The momentum built on prior thinking and activities.
Despite all the benefits of this microgrant, the process was slow, the microgrant offered insufficient resources, and the project was time-consuming. David described the first change attempts as “monsters” in that they were hybrids of traditional and new ideas. He said, “It’s not like suddenly you implement this beautiful curriculum, and everything works perfectly.” Casandra estimated that the cultural changes from lecturing alone to this focus on research integration has probably taken 20 years. David added that the structure of higher education itself is resistant to change. Changing departmental culture was not smooth or fast.
The project leaders attributed the slow change to fear of losing robustness or compromising safety. David explained that many faculty members have strong beliefs that students need to learn the content to understand how research is done. He said this progression reflects at least 100 years of thinking about how to teach chemistry. David added that many faculty members are understandably concerned with safety, but he noted the benefits of facing problems, failing, and moving on. The project was somewhat stifled by faculty concerns and traditions, but the project leaders focused on transforming the courses where instructors were more open to new approaches.
The microgrant alone provided insufficient resources to completely transform the curriculum. It funded small expenses such as traveling to conferences, incentivizing students to complete surveys, purchasing some lab equipment, supporting assessment (CURTP Team, 2018, 2019), and compensating a student worker (CURTP Team, 2020). However, the grant provided no funding for those tasked with making the changes. Tracine pointed out that faculty members require incentives to justify how they spend their time.
In addition, David pointed out that a robust evaluation is essential to see the effects of these changes, but following more than 3,000 students to their various colleges is complicated and expensive. Casandra explained that they had to choose among the action items because they did not have the resources to do all of them. The microgrant was able to spark and implement important changes, but it could not sustain a full transformation without additional resources, such as the consultants and internal support.
This grant demonstrated that change requires tasks that are worthwhile but time-consuming. Although David emphasized that he valued the work, he said the grant required many tasks, including building plans, making changes, writing annual reports, and attending meetings. These tasks were added to the existing workload of tenured faculty members, but tasks related to curricula change were central to the lab manager’s job description. Maya reflected, “The ability to have lab managers, full-time people, with an eye on this project or any kind of curriculum transformation in the laboratories is a gift.”
Maya explained that focusing on implementing undergraduate research could hinder a new tenure-track faculty member’s career because they would have less time for their own research. Particularly at research universities, faculty members must juggle teaching, service, and research to obtain tenure and promotions. For Jackie, this challenge highlights the value of having a team with various people in different roles because it requires less time from individuals. Completely changing the curriculum requires time.
As increasing numbers of universities seek to implement UREs, finding affordable yet effective ways to do so becomes imperative. In this study, we analyzed the faculty perceptions and written records of the project and described the structures and strategies used to facilitate this cultural change. On one hand, the findings suggested that microgrants can be effective in certain conditions, especially if additional resources are available to complement the funding and if the microgrant continues on a desired trajectory. On the other hand, a microgrant does not offer enough by itself and can indeed be detrimentally time-consuming for a tenure-track faculty member to attempt alone.
The prominence of the funder opened doors for the project. Insufficient or inflexible funding and inadequate resources often cripple change initiatives, but funding can raise the profile and display the importance of the project (Anakin et al., 2018; Brew & Mantai, 2017). This study demonstrated that even a small amount of funding can provide a spotlight that will attract other funders.
A time-efficient and cost-effective way to raise support for change initiatives is to develop pilot courses and leverage any resulting student learning gains (Shortlidge & Brownell, 2016; Wang, 2017; Weston & Laursen, 2015). In addition, the elements of inquiry or research ideas currently used by faculty members should be recognized and built upon to cultivate enthusiasm and stimulate others to develop their own practice (Anakin et al., 2018; Spronken-Smith et al., 2011). Focusing on research-based ideas currently used in the university can build momentum for implementing more research-rich experiences for undergraduates.
Regular discussions, such as those required by this microgrant, among members of a department have been found to facilitate the implementation of undergraduate research experiences (Anakin et al., 2018; Brew & Mantai, 2017). This is particularly true when a critical mass is involved in the planning stages of new inquiry courses, fostering widespread ownership of the courses (de la Harpe & Thomas, 2009; Spronken-Smith et al., 2011). However, requiring too much can affect the sustainability of the project when team members become burned out and lose interest in continuing (Anakin et al., 2018). Although the tasks required by the grant were found to be key for transforming the curriculum, they were time-consuming and exhausting, even for faculty members committed to the vision. Finding ways to reduce the pressure on time-stretched faculty members will increase the sustainability of a transformation project.
In addition, studies have found that working only in disciplinary or departmental groupings hinders an exchange of ideas with other departments about inquiry-based learning (Anakin et al., 2018; Brew & Mantai, 2017). In fact, interdepartmental efforts that support curriculum change may be as important as intradepartment efforts are for effecting change (Kezar, 2014). Because this grant was offered to two different departments at the same university, the team members were able to gain from their colleagues’ experiences and ideas.
Outside experts, such as those leading professional development, have been shown to enable change at universities as they help instructors design inquiry-based courses (Anakin et al., 2018). Furthermore, faculty members and pedagogical experts often work together to develop and disseminate resources for others to effectively implement similar changes (Auchincloss et al., 2014; Woodin et al., 2010). Likewise, the consultants provided as part of this microgrant served to move the project forward.
This study was limited by being a snapshot of the experiences of one particular university. The factors identified in this study are not inclusive of all possible change factors, as the literature review makes clear. However, this approach allowed us to gain a more in-depth understanding of the experiences and perspectives of key players in this initiative. We were able to detect factors that can inform other universities that seek effective ways to implement these important changes. This study confirmed prior research on change and offered new contributions to understanding effective and feasible ways to facilitate culture change.
The findings of this study offer important implications for those planning change initiatives. A microgrant can serve as a catalyst for change, but like a catalyst, it accomplishes little on its own. Institutions must examine their own structural and cultural aspects to determine if they have the necessary elements for the microgrant to contribute to cultural transformation. An effective microgrant requires (i) spaces where change can happen, (ii) patience and creativity, (iii) dedicated personnel with interest and goodwill, (iv) resources, and (v) advocates. Overall, the findings suggest that microgrants can be effective in certain conditions, especially if local resources are available to complement the funding and if the microgrant continues on a desired trajectory. These results can serve as a valuable resource for other universities who seek to find effective and feasible means of change.
Rebecca Friesen (email@example.com)is a research scientist, and Adriana Cimetta isan associate research professor, both in the Department of Educational Psychology at the University of Arizona in Tucson, Arizona.
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