Research Projects


While our research projects are diverse, the common thread is that we are interested in improving undergraduate biology education - primarily by focusing on how we can make undergraduate biology more accessible, more equitable, and more inclusive.  Here are four major research areas that we are currently working on.  

experiences (CUREs)

Bio2010 (NRC 2003) and Vision and Change (AAAS 2011) have outlined a set of recommendations to replace traditional "cookbook" lab courses with real-world, authentic research experiences embedded in lab courses.  Instead of having students work through a set of prescribed directions, much like a recipe, to obtain a known answer - students should be engaged in authentic scientific practice, working collaboratively on problems with unknown answers. These courses are called course-based undergraduate research experiences (CUREs).  We have explored the impact of CUREs on students and instructors.  However, much remains to be explored about the important aspects of these courses and the potential for these courses to broaden the participation of undergraduates in research.  


Select relevant publications:

Shortlidge EE, Bangera G, Brownell SE.  Each to Their Own CURE: Faculty Who Teach Course-Based Undergraduate Research Experiences Report Why You Too Should Teach a CURE. Journal of Microbiology and Biology Education. May 2017.


Cooper KM, Soneral P, Brownell SE.  Design your goals before you develop your CURE.  A call to use backward design in planning course-based undergraduate research experiences. Journal of Microbiology and Biology Education. May 2017.


Shortlidge EE, Brownell SE.  How to assess your CURE: A practical guide for instructors of course-based undergraduate research experiences. Journal of Microbiology and Biology Education.  December 2016.


Shortlidge EE, Bangera G, Brownell SE.  Faculty Perspectives on Developing and Teaching Course-based Undergraduate Research Experiences.  BioScience.  January 2016. 


Brownell SE, Hekmat-Scafe D, Singla V, Seawell P, Conklin-Imam J, Eddy SL, Stearns T, and Cyert M.  A high enrollment course-based undergraduate research experience improves student conceptions of scientific thinking and ability to interpret data.  CBE Life Sciences Education.  June 2015.


Bangera G* and Brownell SE*.  Course-based undergraduate research experiences can make scientific research more inclusive.  CBE Life Sciences Education (CBE LSE).  December 2014.


Exploring the experience of students with different social identities in active learning undergraduate biology

Active learning increases the interactions among students and between instructors and students.  Our guiding hypothesis is that these increased interactions increase the relevance of students' social identities because we are asking students to work with each other and share their unique opinions.  We are exploring the impact of gender, LGBTQIA status, anxiety, and other identies in the active learning classroom in order to try to maximize the experience of students in active learning.


Select relevant publications:

Cooper KM*, Downing V*, Brownell SE.  The influence of active learning practices on student anxiety in large-enrollment college science classrooms.  International Journal of STEM Education.  June 2018. (*these authors contributed equally).


Cooper KM, Krieg A, Brownell SE.  Who perceives they're smarter? Exploring the influence of student characteristics on student academic self-concept in physiology.  Advances in Physiology Education.  April 2018.


Cooper KM, Brownell SE.  Coming out in class: Challenges and benefits of active learning in a biology classroom for LGBTQIA students.  CBE Life Sciences Education as part of a special issue on Broadening Participation.  September 2016.


Eddy SL* and Brownell SE*. Beneath the numbers: A review of gender disparities in undergraduate education across science, technology, engineering, and math disciplines.  Physics Review: Special Topics Physics Education Research: Gender in Physics.  August 2016.  (*these authors contributed equally).


Eddy SL*, Brownell SE*, Thummaphan P, Lan MC, Wenderoth MP.  Caution, student experience may vary: Social identities impact a student's experience in peer discussions.  CBE Life Sciences Education.  December 2015.  (*these authors contributed equally). 


Eddy SL*, Brownell SE*, Wenderoth MP.  Gender gaps in achievement and participation in multiple introductory biology classrooms.  CBE Life Sciences Education (CBE LSE).  September 2014.  (*these authors contributed equally)

Decreasing students' perceived conflict between religion and evolution

Evolution is a core concept of biology. In fact, evolution is the overarching theoretical framework that unites all of biology’s sub-disciplines. However, almost half of the general public and up to 60% of college students reject aspects of evolution. This rejection usually stems from a perceived conflict between a student’s religious beliefs and the claims of evolution. However, there are many examples of ways that religious beliefs and scientific claims can be reconciled. Our work explores how students' perceived conflict between religion and evolution might change depending on different instructional practices and contexts.  We are interested in the teaching practices and perspectives of evolution instructors and how this impacts the experiences of religious students learning evolution.  Specifically, we are exploring the religious cultural differences between evolution instructors and religious undergraduate biology students and are promoting the use of cultural competence as a way to improve evolution education.  We have been awarded a NSF grant to explore these questions on a national scale.     

Select relevant publications:

Barnes ME, Brownell SE.  Practices and Perspectives of College Instructors on Addressing Religious Beliefs When Teaching Evolution.  CBE Life Sciences Education.  June 2016. 


Barnes ME, Elser J, Brownell SE.  The impact of a short evolution module on students' perceived conflict between religion and evolution.  American Biology Teacher.  February 2017.


Barnes ME, Truong J, Brownell SE.  Experiences of Judeo-Christian Students in Undergraduate Biology.  CBE Life Sciences Education.  March 2017.


Barnes ME and Brownell SE. Experiences and practices of evolution instructors at Christian universities that can inform culturally competent evolution education. Science Education. November 2017.


Barnes ME and Brownell SE.  A call to use cultural competence when teaching evolution to religious college students: Introducing Religious Cultural Competence in Evolution Education (ReCCEE).  CBE Life Sciences Education.  December 2017.

Programmatic assessment at the biology department level

Biology as a discipline has dramatically expanded.  While many benefits have resulted from this, the sheer amount of knowledge that we now know about biology has become undergraduate biology's Achilles heel.  As we begin to acknowledge that we cannot possibly teach everything and that depth is preferred over breadth, we struggle to reach consensus about what is most important to teach.  The report Vision and Change in Undergraduate Biology Education (AAAS 2011) has outlined a set of core concepts that are intended to guide undergraduate biology education: (1) evolution, (2) structure function, (3) information flow, (4) pathways and transformations of energy and matter, and (5) systems.  We are working on articulating what general biology majors should know about these core concepts upon graduating.  We have created the BioCore Guide, which is an articulation of the core concepts of Vision and Change for a graduating general biology major (Brownell et al. 2014).  As part of a NSF-funded multi-institution collaborative team (University of Washington, University of Colorado Boulder, University of Maine, and University of Nebraska-Lincoln), we have developed three programmatic assessments that are closely aligned with the core concepts.  Our project name is BioMAPS for Measuring Achievement and Progress in Science.  


Select relevant publications:

Brownell SE, Freeman S, Wenderoth MP, and Crowe AJ.  BioCore Guide: A tool for interpreting the core concepts of Vision and Change.  CBE Life Sciences Education.  June 2014.


Summers M, Couch B, Knight J, Brownell SE, Crowe A, Semsar K, Wright C, Smith M.  EcoEvo-MAPS: An ecology and evolution assessment for introductory through advanced undergraduates. CBE Life Sciences Education.  May 2018.


Semsar K, Brownell SE, Couch BA, Crowe AJ, Smith MK, Summers MM, Wright CD, Knight JK.  Phys-MAPS: A programmatic physiology assessment for introductory and advanced undergraduates.  Advances in Physiology Education. December 2018.


Couch BA, Wright CD, Freeman S, Knight JK, Semsar K, Smith MK, Summers MM, Zheng Y, Crowe AJ, Brownell SE.  GenBio-MAPS: A programmatic assessment to measure student understanding of Vision and Change core concepts across general biology programs.  CBE Life Sciences Education. January 2019.