Marc Nahmani, Sciences and Mathematics Division, School of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences, UW Tacoma
Course-based undergraduate research experiences (CUREs) using inquiry-based methodology provide a range of positive benefits to undergraduates and instructors. Yet, the required time and cost in designing and running CUREs with detailed data acquisition steps can lead to barriers in CURE implementation. This report describes an alternative approach to CUREs that utilizes free, open access 3D image volumes as data-rich resources for biology-based CUREs. These open access image volume CUREs (ivCUREs) effectively combine the data acquisition and analysis steps within the course, allowing more time for students to critically evaluate their hypotheses and results, compare data with peers, and reflect on their experiences.
Undergraduates in this particular 10-week ivCURE analyzed >670 neuronal synapses across two brain areas and fully reconstructed 13 of these synapses in 3D. These data highlighted the prevalence of unique structural features at neuronal synapses and their potential importance to neuronal function. Moreover, these results underscore key benefits to ivCURE implementation, including the (1) low-cost of experimental design and implementation, (2) ability to utilize the same data-rich image volume across multiple ivCUREs, (3) potential to generate publishable analyses, and (4) flexibility to scale projects and class sizes up at little to no cost.
Student evaluations of ivCUREs indicate that students enjoy these research experiences, find the content matter engaging, and acquire new skills in lab, giving those measures and “excellent” to “very good” rating, including 4.9 out of 5 on an overall summative rating scale (≥ 90th percentile for course ratings at UW Tacoma) and an average challenge and engagement index of 5 (out of 7). Opportunities for undergraduates to engage in inquiry-based ivCUREs that examine a host of unexplored questions across biological disciplines will continue to grow, in parallel with rapid advances in 3D microscopy techniques and the increased availability and diversity of open access image volumes and analytical tools.