Peer Review

Embracing Innovation and Broadening Student Engagement for STEM Majors

North Carolina Central University (NCCU) has been a constituent member of the University of North Carolina System since 1972. Chartered in 1909 as the nation’s first public liberal arts institution for African Americans, NCCU is now classified as a Comprehensive Level 1 Institution with an approximate enrollment of 8,300. NCCU has well-established STEM programs and is increasing emphasis on research as a corollary to a liberal arts education. However, the increase in college access has resulted in many first-generation students and concurrent with this has been a decrease in retention and graduation rates.

During the 2010-2011 academic year, NCCU participated in the first cohort of the Preparing Critical Future Faculty (PCFF) Program, a professional and leadership development program for women of color faculty in STEM disciplines focused on improving STEM education at HBCUs and beyond. NCCU developed an action plan focused on broadening engagement experiences for all STEM undergraduate majors through embedded project-based and inquiry-based activities throughout the curriculum. Non-STEM majors seeking to fulfill their general education science requirement will also benefit from these revisions. This article features individual reflections from the authors, who are both NCCU-PCFF faculty representatives. One section is on the implementation of high-impact practices in General Biology, the other in General Chemistry.

High-Impact Practices in General Biology Courses

Over the past few years I wanted to do something different with the General Biology course. After learning about the Preparing Critical Faculty for the Future (PCFF), I knew I wanted to be a part of this community of scholars to network about my General Biology laboratory experiences, expectations, and frustrations. I also wanted to learn more about how to secure grant funds to improve NCCU’s undergraduate science curriculum through innovative teaching and inquiry-based laboratories. Since implementing this year-long inquiry-based project in the General Biology laboratory, the weekly exercises are more meaningful. When I think about interdisciplinary learning, this innovative laboratory course forces the students to integrate their math and chemistry knowledge to set up their experiments. This course also requires that students apply their written and oral communication skills to write lab reports in their notebooks on a regular basis and finally, the students must use good oral communication skills to present a scientific poster at the end of the year-long course.

Recently, I have seen more student enthusiasm in the laboratory coupled with better student attendance. Since much of this innovative laboratory is student driven, it has been rewarding to see the traditionally underrepresented students in STEM emulate research scientists during their first year of college.

The General Biology course at NCCU is the first core course for science majors and those students who will be taking upper-level courses in biology. This four-credit hour class meets for three lecture hours and two laboratory hours each week. Class enrollment is typically twenty-four students per section, and faculty teach multiple sections. For most tenure-track faculty who teach the course, a guiding question has been, “how does one manage teaching and research with the large enrollment in these introductory courses?” This introductory course requires several hours of preparatory time for both lecture and laboratory, and grading papers can consume an entire day. The notion has been that the traditional laboratory exercises were designed to reinforce the lecture material covered in class, but over the past five years, in-class exams and final exam grades revealed that our students were still not grasping the concepts. So those of us teaching the introductory biology course decided to try something new. Instead of using the traditional cook book laboratory exercises for one section of General Biology I, we integrated a research-based project on bacteriophage genomics in the laboratory course.

Authentic Research Experience
Students need scientific knowledge, quantitative and communication skills, and hands-on experience to be prepared for science careers. According to the National Research Council (2003), students need to appreciate that science is a process and not a set of memorized facts. Science experiments should enable a student to think independently while at the same time exposing them to scientific protocols and research methods (Hunter 2007; Kuh et. al. 1997). As scientists construct experiments to answer questions, too few students are given this type of opportunity because of the resource-intensive nature of fundamental research.

Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) supports the idea that undergraduate students should be exposed to an authentic research experience as early as possible. Phage Hunters Advancing Genomics and Evolutionary Science (PHAGES), supported by HHMI, introduces undergraduate students to an authentic research experience via a bacteriophage genomics course. This course builds on themes and techniques across biology. At the same time, this research experience connects students, teaching assistants, and faculty via a common experiment to share results, resources, and expertise.

NCCU applied to participate in the PHAGES program, which we felt would help to improve first-year retention rates in the General Biology course, help students better apply concepts, and provide students with early exposure to research. Although we anticipated that this experience would motivate students to strive for better class participation and better course grades, we had no idea how excited and how engaged the students would become with this research project.

In our General Biology I—a genomics-based laboratory course—the first few weeks of the fall semester are used to orient the students with basic science skills, which include familiarizing the students with scientific equipment, using aseptic techniques, maintaining bacterial cultures, and performing serial dilutions. Mini-experiments have been designed to ensure that they have mastered these basic science skills and understand basic scientific concepts.

Key Elements that Make HIPs Work
  • Integration and Application

“Doing Science”
This course was team-taught by two biology instructors and two biology graduate students. Instructors were present to show the students proper techniques and answer any questions that the students may have had, while the graduate students were available in case additional assistance was needed during class. Working with first-semester freshmen, the notion of good record keeping in one’s laboratory notebook, reading the protocol prior to class, and thinking ahead about the next experiment needed to be reiterated during every laboratory session. The expectation was that by the end of the semester, the students would be able to write a reflective paper about their experience, and by the end of the academic year, be able to prepare and present a scientific poster.

At the end of the spring semester, three small student groups from our genomics class presented posters based on their genomics research at the NCCU College of Science and Technology Annual Research Symposium. Out of forty-five undergraduate posters, two of our student groups tied for third place in the Undergraduate Poster Presentations, a testament emphasizing their effective communication skills and comprehension of the subject matter. After the first year of this course implementation, we observed several things that worked to our benefit. For example, there was increased student retention (80 percent pass rate of C or better) from the fall semester genomics course to the spring semester genomics course, and the laboratory component did not need to necessarily reinforce the lecture material. Our short-term outcomes showed that participation in this laboratory-based genomics research course motivated our students to have better class participation and strive for better lecture and laboratory grades when compared to students enrolled in a traditional introductory biology laboratory course.

Students that participated in this designated laboratory section of introductory biology were “doing science” by investigating a real-world problem, interpreting data, and making conclusions about their results based on bacteriophage genomics. Just having completed our second year of this laboratory genomics-based course, we have exposed at least forty science majors to this innovative research experience.

Looking Forward
As the biology department thinks about expanding this course, we plan to have group leaders in every laboratory section that will be paired with a ‘research team’ comprising a two former undergraduate students from the genomics class, a biology graduate student, and a science faculty member. In addition to this research team, we plan to also have a laboratory coordinator that will serve as a liaison with the group leaders to ensure that adequate supplies are available once the students start conducting the actual experiments. We also plan to have all of the students involved in the course blog about their laboratory experience, which can be written and read on a more frequent basis.

Interdisciplinary faculty and faculty expertise from the various science departments will be used to educate the students on how biology, computational science, and environmental science are all interrelated. There will also be a genomics recitation to answer specific questions that students might have about their research project and the practical applications that this research has in the scientific world. As one of our long-term goals, we hope that by improving the students’ overall educational experience, we will encourage them to seek out summer research programs after their freshmen and sophomore year and subsequently pursue graduate degrees and careers in a science field.

High-Impact Practices in the General Chemistry Curriculum

In fall 2011, I returned to full-time teaching after seven years in various leadership roles in the Divisions of Academic Affairs and Graduate Education and Research (now the Division of Research and Economic Development) at North Carolina Central University. In addition to my teaching duties, I am the campus Principal Investigator for the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP) Program—part of the Division of Human Resources Development’s (HRD) portfolio at the National Science Foundation focused on broadening participation of under-represented minorities in STEM.

For several years, the Alliance’s focus had been primarily focused on institutionalization of best practices such as peer mentoring and peer-led learning and undergraduate research among others (Williams and DeLauder 2008; Williams and DeLauder 2009). I was interested in implementing some of these high-impact strategies into the general chemistry curriculum to foster student engagement and student learning.

General Chemistry I and II is a two-semester course sequence for science majors. General Chemistry II is considered a gatekeeper course as it is a prerequisite for all students who take upper-level courses in chemistry. In contrast to biology, however, nonscience majors are allowed to enroll in these courses to fulfill their general education science requirement as well. In General Chemistry II, we build upon the content mastered during the first semester. Both courses are four credit hours with classes meeting for three lecture hours, one recitation hour, and three laboratory hours each week. Average student enrollment per section is twenty-four. The majority of students enrolled were biology, physical education, and food science majors.

All students were required to spend one hour outside of class per week with a peer mentor to keep them on task. Peer mentors were selected based upon their success in General Chemistry (a grade of B or above), their interpersonal skills, availability, and interest with engaging students. A first-semester graduate student was selected to coordinate the activities of the mentors. Study guides were developed for each chapter outlining the content goals and objectives along with examples and assigned problems. Biweekly quizzes, posted to the course website, assessed information discussed in the Study Guides; as an additional assessment, each student was required to submit a notebook periodically during the semester for review. The added incentive for students completing these study guides was that they were allowed to use their notebooks on quizzes and tests. This allowed for the assessment of critical thinking and problem-solving skills rather than memorization.

Key Elements that Make HIPs Work
  • Writing and Research

Project-Based Activities
During fall 2011, General Chemistry I students demonstrated their understanding of the scientific method through development of a hypothesis-driven project on a topic of their choice. Elements in the presentation included the hypothesis and specific aims, project design, a discussion of the type of data that should be gathered in order to address their specific aims, and the type of results expected from the gathered data. The purpose of this exercise was for students to not only understand the elements of the scientific method but also how the method could be utilized within their specific majors and as an introduction to the design of research projects. Students across several majors worked together to address their chosen topic with the expectation that all topics would somehow link to chemistry. All groups gave a ten-minute presentation to the class and were peer reviewed by the class.

During spring 2012, we changed the presentation assignment to further engage students. That semester, General Chemistry I students developed projects on the periodic table where each group was assigned a chemical family (group) to present to the class as a PowerPoint presentation on unique information regarding elements within the group or family. As a final project, students selected a molecule of their choice and wrote a research paper to reinforce some of the topics that were discussed during the semester. From that paper, students developed a presentation to deliver to the class. General Chemistry II students performed several interactive activities made available through a teaching and learning website. These activities reinforced topics discussed during lecture and enhanced critical thinking and problem-solving skills because students were required to interpret results. General Chemistry II students also wrote case studies on a topic discussed in class during the semester.

The College of Science and Technology celebrated its Fourth Annual Undergraduate Student Research Day in April 2012. As an application of the scientific method, General Chemistry I and II students were required to review two student poster presentations. This was an opportunity for students to gain exposure to the vast research opportunities that are ongoing in the college and provided opportunities to discuss with their peers how involvement in undergraduate research has enhanced their academic experiences.

Similar to General Chemistry I students, General Chemistry II students also wrote research papers on a molecule or their choice. Students were expected to draw linkages between the intermolecular forces of the molecule and how they relate to the molecular structure. They were also were expected to explain where the molecule would most likely be stored in the body based upon exposure or ingestion and how acid or base properties, as well as solubility of the molecule, affect this phenomena. Students were expected to provide data and any analytical procedures used to gather this type of data in their discussion, and to discuss any environmental impacts or concerns for the molecule selected.

Improving the Passage Rate
For fall 2011, the passage rate (grade C or above) for General Chemistry I averaged 66 percent. In spring 2012, the passage rate improved to 83 percent. I attribute this improvement in the passage rate to including more interactive activities, allowing opportunities to retake quizzes, and having peer mentors available during lecture and recitation. The passage rate for General Chemistry II averaged 86 percent. More activities focused on interactive learning versus rote memory may explain the passage rate. As with General Chemistry I, students had the opportunity to retake quizzes and peer mentors were available during lecture and recitation to assist with questions.

I found that assigning open-ended projects for General Chemistry I and II students is a more comprehensive way of gauging comprehension. More importantly, if students are able to make linkages between seemingly disparate concepts then they should better retain the important aspects of the course. Providing opportunities for students to actively engage in applying concepts that they understand to address new topics also helps to build skills that are useful along their career paths.



The authors would like to gratefully acknowledge two of their North Carolina Central University colleagues: Dr. Wendy Heck Grillo, assistant professor, department of biology, and co-instructor for the PHAGES course; and Dr. Sandra L. White, professor, department of biology and director, Center for Science, Math, and Technology Education.


National Research Council. 2003. Evaluating and Improving Undergraduate Teaching in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

Hunter, A.-B., S. L. Laursen, and E. Seymour. 2007. “Becoming a Scientist: The Role of Undergraduate Research in Students’ Cognitive, Personal, and Professional Development.” Science Education 91(1): 36–74.

Kuh, G. D., C. R. Pace, and N. Vesper. 1997. “The Development of Process Indicators to Estimate Student Gains Associated with Good Practices in Undergraduate Education.” Research in Higher Education 38(4): 435–454.

Williams, M., and S. F. DeLauder. “The North Carolina Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation Program–Increasing Student Success through Established Partnerships: Best Practices in STEM Student Development.” Proceedings of the International Conference of Education, Research, and Innovation. ISBN: 978-84-613-2953-3 (Paper #61). 5695-5703. Madrid, Spain November 16–18, 2009.

———. 2008. “Successful Academic Models for Increasing the Pipeline of Black and Hispanic Students in STEM Areas. The North Carolina Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation Program, Increasing Student Success through Established Partnerships.” In Models for Success, Successful Academic Models for Increasing the Pipeline of Black and Hispanic Students in STEM Areas, Third Edition. 193-210. Brooklyn, NY: Thurgood Marshall College Fund, Inc.

Saundra F. DeLauder is the special assistant to the vice chancellor in the Division of Graduate Education and Research at North Carolina Central University, Durham; Gail P. Hollowell is an associate professor in the Department of Biology at North Carolina Central University, Durham.

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