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$200,000 NSF Grant Helps Transform Undergraduate Education

November 6, 2012

Contact: Chris Kitts
805-756-2949

student collecting e. coli samples from a stream
Biological sciences major Maria Zuleta Alvarado collects
E. coli samples near San Luis Obispo Creek during
summer 2012. Photo by Laura Dickinson.

SAN LUIS OBISPO — Engaging students in research is important to biological sciences Professor and Department Chair Chris Kitts. It's also important to the National Science Foundation (NSF), whose Transforming Undergraduate Education in Science division recently awarded Kitts and three collaborators a $200,000 grant to integrate research into the curriculum.

The grant funds the development of a theme-based, interdisciplinary approach to science education that allows students to work on real-life science from Day One. Kitts believes student participation in ongoing research will increase student engagement in entry-level courses, which should lead to increased retention.

"My first biology class was a zoology class, and it was dry toast," Kitts said. "It wasn't problem-oriented, and it turned me off of biology entirely," Kitts said.

Kitts and his colleagues have already begun exploring and implementing this type of curriculum with a previous grant from the Keck Foundation. The theme that runs through their current set of courses is the construction of an E. coli database that will help identify the source of fecal contamination in water and soil.

Freshmen biological sciences majors collect E. coli samples and produce fingerprints of different strains. Sophomore and junior students in both biology and computer science work together to analyze the data the freshmen produce and add it to the database. At the senior and graduate levels, students can build on the earlier work to ask and answer real-life questions using the database.

Because the data they produce will contribute to their peers' research, students are more likely to find the time they spend in the lab valuable. "This gets lower division folks doing stuff in a lab that is meaningful. Yes your data is important — someone else is going to use that," Kitts said.

This approach also gives students the opportunity to both work and communicate across disciplines. "I think that a really important piece of education that we've been neglecting is how to put it all together," Kitts said.

The NSF grant allows Kitts and his colleagues to build on their current work to develop a general structure for this type of curriculum that other programs and universities can use. The grant provides funding for analyzing different approaches to multi-level, theme-based education; selecting the most effective methods; producing guidelines others can follow and sharing the end product with scientists at other institutions.

Kitts also hopes these types of ongoing research projects can contribute to local communities. The construction of the E. coli database has already benefitted San Luis Obispo County by helping to identify fecal contamination in the ocean at Pismo Beach and in San Luis Obispo Creek.

"We can help the community around us deal with some of their environmental issues. That's also bringing the students into relationship with the community they're currently in and letting them know how what they're learning is ultimately useful and important," Kitts said. "Science is about coming up with cool and interesting questions. If you can get that across to an undergrad when they first start, then you’ve sparked a life-long appreciation for science," Kitts said.

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