Undergrads Experience Unique Bioengineering Research Opportunities

Achievement date: 

Researchers at the Center for Biorenewable Chemicals (CBiRC), an NSF-funded Engineering Research Center (ERC) headquartered at Iowa State University (ISU), have collaborated with the University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign) to significantly enhance undergraduate open-inquiry research opportunities in an ISU core module known as “Yeast, Let’s plump it up!” 


Students are now at the forefront of current research capabilities and able to realize the multidisciplinary nature of biorenewables research. The core module, which debuted in 2012, now includes: enhanced biological and computational technologies for students; an online environment that is interactive, student-friendly, and grounded in the 21st century; and new biological tools that increase the scope of research five-fold, from 1,000 to over 5,000 possible strain improvements.


A significant strength of this module is its ability to be evolved and expanded over many years based on knowledge gained each semester; continued development of the module also demonstrates the power of CBiRC to be at the forefront of STEM education as well as research. The current six-week research program gives nearly 200 students per semester opportunities to become practicing “Scientists within the Center.”


Grounded in computational predictions and ongoing CBiRC research efforts, the module challenges students with a more real-world laboratory experience; they define hypotheses, design experiments, test the hypotheses, and present findings to a CBiRC faculty panel (see figure). Overall, the close collaboration of CBiRC researchers with the educational community exemplifies transformative change in undergraduate laboratory courses—movement away from traditional “cookbook” experiments toward novel research-based, problem-solving opportunities. This experience at ISU serves as a potential blueprint for similar programs and classrooms across the United States.