November 22, 2022

CURE-ing barriers to undergraduate research in the classroom

I remember the excitement as an undergrad of looking at a professor’s research and being intrigued by the questions they strive to answer. The butterflies of attending an office hour to chat about past projects and the adrenaline of drafting an email and sending my resume in hopes of getting an opportunity to do research followed by a nervous wait to get a positive reply hopefully.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, this opportunity was stripped for many as students completed classes remotely, and many labs had to ramp down their activities. This left many students sad and panicked about potentially completing their undergraduate education without ever partaking in an authentic research experience. 

But what if educators could make authentic research experiences more accessible to students? What if students could engage in undergraduate research in their very classes? This is the idea of Course-based Undergraduate Research Experiences or CUREs. Professors can have students work on a large project or contribute to a database of interest to the scientific community. 

During the pandemic, I began to learn about using remote sensing technologies to monitor water quality using Google Earth Engine, a free cloud-based geospatial analysis platform that enables users to visualize and analyze satellite images of our planet. At the same time, I was taking a series of courses at UCLA’s Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching and Learning. This is where I got the idea of teaching undergrads the same research techniques I was learning as an intern, but in a classroom setting. 

The code is given to students to create water quality maps and obtain time-series data in Google Earth Engine. Pictured here is a color-dissolved organic matter plume near Galveston Bay in Texas.

Before the start of the quarter, I worked with my advisor, Dr. Jennifer Jay, to create small remote sensing labs where students can learn how to use satellite imagery to map deforestation and sea ice change. A small taste before contributing to a more extensive dataset where students will work together to find how COVID-19 andropause (lack of human activity) influenced the aquatic environment globally. It’s been incredible to see the creativity of students and their ability to see the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic in their home country or place they’d like to visit.

Results of the work that the students produced on CUREs.

Working on integrating geoscience skills and classroom teaching time has shown me the importance of accessibility to research techniques to students. The integration of CUREs will not only empower students and propel them on their academic journeys but may also be used to break down barriers to research, especially for minorities in STEM.

Ileana's blog post is a result of Coquites Cohort 1 deliverables from CoCo Program 2022.