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A Course-Based Research and Teaching Experience for Science Majors and Preservice Educators

Journal of College Science Teaching—September/October 2022 (Volume 52, Issue 1)

By Timothy Stewart, Janette Thompson, Kristina Tank, Joanne Olson, Michael Rentz, and Peter Wolter

We designed a course to provide undergraduate science students and preservice teachers with authentic research and teaching experiences. Teams of students and preservice teachers complete supervised field ecology research projects and develop teaching activities based on their research in order to learn practices in both science and science teaching while improving skills in collaboration, leadership, and different forms of communication. Students apply their learning by educating local school groups on ecological concepts in the field and share their scholarship with faculty, peers, and community partners during a poster symposium. Each student team completes a research project and teaching activity proposal, conducts research and develops a teaching activity, and writes a research paper and lesson plan in the format of a professional manuscript. Teams use mentor feedback and their reflections on drafts and practice sessions to improve the research proposal and paper, teaching lesson plan, delivery of the teaching activity, and poster presentation.


In university environments with high student-to-faculty ratios and a predominance of lecture courses, students pursuing careers in science may have few opportunities for authentic experiences in which they perform tasks of practitioners (Gunckel & Wood, 2015; Mordacq et al., 2017; McDonald et al., 2019). Preservice secondary science teachers at our institution are science majors who attend similar lecture-based courses as those pursuing science careers, despite the expectation that they will teach students using more inquiry-based pedagogical practices. Furthermore, methods courses are designed to teach effective pedagogy, but students are unlikely to have experienced such practices in their science courses. To address concerns regarding this lack of experience, several universities have developed courses that enable undergraduate students to engage in scientific research with faculty supervision. Studies have shown that students completing course-based research gain understanding of subject content and learn how to design scientific investigations and critically evaluate information (Mordacq et al., 2017; Kinner & Lord, 2018; Dahlberg et al., 2019). Active involvement in research and teaching also generates transferable skills that include collaborative learning, leadership, and communication (Guenther et al., 2019; McDonald et al., 2019; Cianfrani & Hews, 2020). There is also evidence that creative thinking skills emerging from these experiences support innovative approaches to addressing scientific questions and lead teachers to implement more novel and effective pedagogical approaches (Gunckel & Wood, 2015; Kinloch & Dixon, 2018; Dahlberg et al., 2019).

Field Ecology Research and Teaching course overview

At Iowa State University, faculty in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences and the School of Education designed a course (NREM 380, Field Ecology Research and Teaching, to provide undergraduate science majors and preservice teachers with both research and teaching experiences. This course is offered each fall semester to upper-level undergraduate natural science majors and preservice teachers in our institution’s education programs. The course is an elective for science majors and students in the elementary education program and a requirement for students in the secondary science education program.

The three-credit course is conducted over a 16-week period, with two 1-hour lecture or discussion sessions and one 3-hour laboratory session each week. Currently, enrollment is limited to 24 students, and over the five offerings to date, enrollment has ranged from 7 to 20 students. Students do their coursework in the classroom and at a local field site, which has diverse habitats accessible by foot trails to conduct research and teaching activities. Each student is charged a $40 fee to cover costs of essential course supplies and transportation to our field site. We re-use purchased materials, so costs of conducting the course have declined over time. The course schedule and major activities are described in Table 1.

During the semester, teams of students complete three major assignments: an ecological research project, an ecology teaching activity, and a professional poster presentation based on either their research project or teaching activity (Table 1). Work is completed under the guidance of two professors who serve as lead instructors, three additional faculty who share expertise as needed, and up to three peer mentors. The participation of multiple instructors provides students with access to mentors who have diverse experiences and skills. If demand for our course increases in the future, instructors can be divided into smaller teams and additional course sections can be offered without increasing individual teaching responsibilities. Currently, each lead instructor directs approximately 12 hours each week to preparing for the course, interacting with students, and reviewing and grading assignments. Other faculty involved in this course typically work with students as mentors for their projects for 5 or 6 hours each semester. Peer mentors are students who previously completed this course. These students regularly attend class sessions and receive 3 hours of internship course credit for their contributions.

Students complete a team placement questionnaire on the first day of class. Lead instructors use survey information to assemble teams of three or four students who collaborate on major assignments. Each team includes at least one undergraduate science major and one preservice teacher and consists of students with interests in similar types of organisms or ecosystems. We organize teams during the second class meeting, and these groups discuss research project ideas with mentors. Students gain further insight into research options when we visit the field site during the first laboratory session.

Research project

A major course objective is to provide students with a complete research experience. Due to time and financial constraints, and limitations in the breadth of mentor expertise, research projects address specific research questions using a simple study design. Teams identify their own research topic, write a proposal describing their study design, collect and analyze data, and complete a paper in a scientific manuscript format (Table 1). During the class meeting following the initial field site visit, teams refine their research topic and discuss study design and research proposal development. Proposal components include a title, introduction, methods, and references (Online Appendix 1). In the introduction, teams use peer-reviewed literature to provide background information on the topic and justify the study by describing its broader relevance. They describe focal taxa and ecosystems and state study objectives and research questions. The methods section includes descriptions of the study site, independent and dependent variables, and data collection and analysis procedures. If the proposed study is an experiment, teams describe treatment levels of independent variables and number of replicates per treatment. If the study is observational, teams report the expected number of observations made or samples collected. Students address mentor comments on a first draft of the research proposal before they produce a final version.

Table 1.
Field Ecology Research and Teaching course schedule.

Field Ecology Research and Teaching course schedule.

Data collection for the research project occurs over a 3-week period during laboratory sessions (Table 1). After field-based research and teaching activities end in late October (Week 9), the class convenes for data analysis and a discussion of writing a research paper (Online Appendix 1). The introduction and methods sections in the research proposal are transferable to the research paper or can be revised as necessary. The abstract briefly summarizes paper content, key findings are presented in the results, and the significance of these results is highlighted in the discussion. Students complete two drafts of the research paper, using mentor comments on the first draft to produce an improved second version. Research papers have focused on diverse research questions, types of organisms, and ecosystems (Online Appendix 2). Common themes include effects of climate, pollution, and habitat disturbance on biodiversity and relationships between plant and invertebrate community structure.

Teaching activity

While their research is in progress, teams also develop a teaching activity focused on a related study question, taxonomic group, or ecosystem (Table 1; see also Online Appendices 2 and 3) and conduct the activity with local first-grade classes in the outdoor setting. The lesson plan template used by our students aligns with the learning cycle model (Karplus, 1977; Marek, 2008; Olson, 2009) and consists of engagement, exploration, concept development, and concept application phases (Online Appendix 3). In the engagement phase, instructors introduce the study topic to students and use pre-formulated questions to assess students’ prior knowledge about the subject and stimulate interest in the activity. The exploration phase consists of the activity itself, including all procedures that students must follow. In the concept development phase, the lesson transitions to making sense of the students’ learning experience. A carefully crafted sequence of questions is used to help students gather information and interpret findings from the exploration stage, advance their thinking, and learn central concepts (i.e., important ecological concepts). Necessary terminology is also introduced in this phase. Instructors facilitate learning through guided discussions in which participants ask and answer questions and share their thinking. Early questions help students understand key findings from the exploration stage, and follow-up questions gradually lead to students’ learning of central concepts. Finally, the concept application phase involves students using their new ideas in a more extended context. This phase can take many forms, including follow-up activities that can be conducted in different environments (e.g., in a different ecosystem or in the classroom) or that focus on different types of organisms. Additionally, the application phase includes a discussion of how concepts that students learned apply to their own lives (i.e., a “take-home message”).

Instructors naturally focus on developing the exploration phase, but concept development and application phases also require careful planning. For example, during a teaching activity developed in this course (Online Appendix 2), data collected and summarized during the exploration and concept development phases revealed that arthropod taxonomic diversity was higher in a tallgrass prairie than in a mown lawn. Based on subsequent discussion, students arrived at the conclusion that arthropod diversity declines when humans replace prairies with lawns. Through further discussion, students learned two central concepts illustrated by this activity: (a) Organisms require resources to survive, and (b) habitat diversity is needed to support biodiversity. In the concept application phase, student instructors used additional guided discussion to address the related central concept that biodiversity is important to humans. By asking and answering carefully structured and sequenced questions, these young students learned that humans depend on insects and other arthropods (e.g., as pollinators of plants, as food for animals that we consume) and that these services are lost when we eliminate habitat.

We align teaching central concepts with the Next Generation Science Standards to familiarize preservice teachers with professional expectations and support current teachers (NGSS Lead States, 2013; Online Appendices 2 and 3). It would also be possible for students to refer to the Common Core State Standards where applicable (National Governors Association Center for Best Practices & Council of Chief State School Officers, 2010). We host an annual ecology field day, where each student team engages approximately 25 first-grade students from a local school in a 1-hour teaching activity. To prepare for this event, each team completes a lesson plan, then addresses mentor recommendations in a second draft (Table 1). Teams also participate in teaching activity practice sessions, with peers and mentors role-playing as students. Self-reflection and audience feedback help improve the pedagogy employed. Pedagogical practices are congruent with those that promote optimal student engagement and learning of complex concepts (e.g., Rowe, 1986; Vogler, 2005; Olson, 2009). For example, the instructors ask open-ended questions; use extended wait time; provide prompt and individualized feedback; and make extensive use of whiteboards, chart paper, student groups, and whole-class and small-group discussion (see Online Appendix 4 for an example of how to use charts and group discussion in an activity).

Poster presentation

Following the research and teaching experiences, teams choose to present an overview of their research project or teaching activity as a poster (Table 1). Following the recommendations of Hofmann (2016) and McMillan (2017), we emphasize that text should be large enough to read from a distance of 2 meters and that concise bulleted statements, tables and figures, photographs, and illustrations should communicate key points. Content is organized so as to be easy to follow and understand. Presentation organization and content generally follow the format of the applicable research paper or teaching lesson plan. As a class, we review the first draft of each poster, and each team uses the class comments to improve its poster. Each student prepares and practices an oral summary of the work. During a symposium, each team presents its poster to classmates, mentors, and diverse community partners. Team members participate equally in presenting the work and answering questions. Each student views all other presentations and completes an assignment that summarizes the contents of each poster, includes a question the student asked each team about their scholarship, and provides author responses.

Evaluation and assessment of learning

Course grades are based on the research project (proposal and paper = 30% of grade); teaching activity (lesson plan and ecology field day delivery = 35%); poster presentation (20%); and assessment of attendance, participation, and effort (15%). Expectations for the research project, teaching activity, and poster presentation are discussed with students when each assignment is introduced. The earliest iteration of an assignment has 25%–50% of the point value of the final product, although each version is graded using the same rubric. Consistent grading criteria and comments provided by mentors on each iteration enable students to focus on areas that need the most attention. An improvement in grades between iterations provides a quantitative mechanism for assessing student learning, as do self-reported gains in knowledge and skills on student questionnaires administered at the beginning and end of the course (see Online Appendices 5 and 6).

All team members receive the same grade on the research project, teaching activity, and poster presentation. Students are graded individually on attendance, participation, and effort. Each student completes a self-evaluation and a peer evaluation where they assign a score, with justification, for each team member based on an assessment of the team member’s reliability in completing tasks. A student assigns each team member a score of 100% if they believe that all team members, including themselves, participated equally when completing assignments. Higher and lower individual scores reflect perceived uneven contributions. We generally find that peer evaluation scores and comments are consistent within a team, and students usually self-report when they contribute less effort than expected. Peer evaluation scores, combined with mentor evaluations based on our observations, elevate the final grades of students who participate at a consistently high level, while they may negatively affect students who clearly did not fulfill their responsibilities.


Field Ecology Research and Teaching provides students with formal, extensive, and coupled research and teaching experiences that are otherwise difficult to acquire in a single course. Additionally, our course offers opportunities to educate a broader audience through community partnerships. We have not yet purposefully recruited students from underserved groups, but any student who has completed a course in ecology or been admitted to a K–12 education program is eligible to enroll in our course.

By linking collaborative and authentic research and teaching activities in one course, our students gain technical and transferable skills that are known to contribute to professional development and lifelong learning (Vogler et al., 2018; Guenther et al., 2019; Peasland et al., 2019). Students also learn how innovative scholarship can result from these distinct experiences. For future teachers, research experience facilitates the development of concept-driven and inquiry-based instructional practices that enhance student interest in and knowledge of science (Gunckel & Wood, 2015; Kinder et al., 2015; Barnes et al., 2019). This course provides an opportunity for undergraduate science majors with an interest in teaching to observe connections between science research and education. By engaging in the teaching activity and poster presentation, a student interested in a research career gains communication skills that are critically important for convincing diverse audiences of the value of their work.

Similar to other “hands-on” learning courses, our course has transformative potential for students who lack confidence in their abilities or are unsure of their career path (Guenther et al., 2019; McDonald et al., 2019; Peasland et al., 2019). This is illustrated by input on course evaluations, including the following statements describing how students believe they benefitted from this experience:

  • “I liked getting to ‘do work’ and not just learning information. It gave me great real-life experience with research and teaching.”
  • “When I registered for Field Ecology Research and Teaching, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do after completing my college education. Midway through the course, I realized that research is something I am passionate about and would like to continue exploring.”
  • “In the Field Ecology Research and Teaching course, I designed and conducted a turtle population study. I worked collaboratively and effectively with a team and was excited to do research and teaching projects. I leveraged this experience to earn an NSF REU position at the University of South Dakota doing additional turtle research. I felt so strongly about my experience that I delivered a PowerPoint presentation to the Department of Natural Resource Ecology and Management’s Learning Community to encourage students to take this course.”

An additional value of this course is the opportunity it provides for building a community that extends beyond the university. During the annual ecology field day, our students interact with approximately 125 first graders from a local public school. Learning experiences in an outdoor environment have positive effects on youth cognitive development and physical and psychological health (Beames et al., 2016; Longbottom & Slaughter, 2016; Millitello et al., 2017). Field ecology experiences in particular generate ecological literacy, interest in the natural environment, and empathy for living things (Goralnik et al., 2012; Gallay et al., 2016; Camasso & Jagannathan, 2018). These qualities drive the individual and collective actions needed to produce healthier and more sustainable social and ecological systems (Beames et al., 2016; Gallay et al., 2016; Schild, 2016).

Although student reviews of our course are generally positive, constructive criticisms help us make improvements. One former student commented that time constraints made it difficult to do excellent work on all assignments. Completing a research project and a teaching activity in one course is challenging, and we have reduced other course expectations while continuing to provide students with comprehensive authentic experiences. The quality of research projects and teaching activities has improved over time, indicating that refinements have benefitted students.

Other lessons have informed course revisions. Consistent with observations from other undergraduate courses (Vogler et al., 2018; Cianfrani & Hews, 2020), collaborative relationships clearly affect student attitudes and quality of work. Collaborative work presents many students with unfamiliar challenges, including the need to compromise, resolve conflicts, and occasionally assume the responsibilities of another team member. In our course, assembling teams based on topics of common interest appears to alleviate conflict over scholarship ideas. Balancing numbers of science and education students in a team also seems to facilitate successful collaborations because expertise in both disciplines is more likely to be well represented.

Absenteeism is the prevailing cause for most team dysfunction. The first time we taught this course, absent students produced resentment in their peers and scholarship of comparatively low quality. We now address attendance issues on the first day of class verbally and in the course syllabus by emphasizing the importance of regular and on-time attendance. We also conduct an interactive activity to illustrate the importance of punctual attendance and active listening for successful collaboration (Johnson et al., 1992), and we have increased the relative importance of attendance in determining course grades. Since implementing these elements, attendance and quality of work have both improved.


Financial support for developing this course was provided by the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at Iowa State University. Continuing support is provided by the Department of Natural Resource Ecology and Management and School of Education at Iowa State University, Gilbert (Iowa) Elementary School, City of Ames Department of Parks and Recreation, and the Friends of Ada Hayden Heritage Park.

Timothy Stewart ( is an associate professor, Janette Thompson is a professor, Peter Wolter is an associate professor, and Michael Rentz is an associate teaching professor, all in the Department of Natural Resource Ecology and Management, and Kristina Tank is an associate professor in the School of Education, all at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa. Joanne Olson is a professor in the Department of Teaching, Learning, and Culture in the College of Education and Human Development at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas.


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Preservice Science Education Research Teacher Preparation

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