Inspiring and EmpOwERing undergraduates to engage with and contribute to the primary literature

Guest post by: Lou Roberts, Associate Professor of Teaching, Department of Biology and Biotechnology

When I reflect on my exposure to the primary literature as a Biology and Biotechnology major at WPI, I recall being introduced to journal articles by Professor Adams in Advanced Cell Biology, and Professor Rulfs in Animal and Plant Cell Culture Techniques. Perhaps my most chronic exposure came from a part-time research position I held at a small biotech startup company my senior year, where one of my tasks was locating and photocopying articles from the UMass Medical School library. From this very tactile experience I learned how journal articles in the biological sciences were structured (and smelled!), and was able to divine the conventions of tone and standards for presentation of original research. These experiences were valuable to my graduate education, particularly in defining the context of my research project and ultimately writing my thesis.

With the gain of easy accessibility to articles electronically (no paper jams, microfiche, or interlibrary loan!) came a reduction in the explicit experience of sleuthing and hunting for the most important works in our field. In some ways immediate and unfettered access makes this process harder- there are many more journals now, whose relevance can be harder to deduce. Further, these experiences are not very informative of the process by which these articles are constructed- defining a hypothesis, testing via experimentation, writing up the results and analyses, and going through the peer review and editorial processes. We hypothesized that by engaging students in the writing process, we would enrich their experience in navigating, reading, and immersing in the primary literature.

I was empowered by my department to create a new authentic research laboratory Cell Culture Models for Tissue Regeneration, in which students would design, build, test, and refine three dimensional models of diseases constructed from animal cell lines and biocompatible materials. The final product of their research is an article written in the style of a peer-reviewed manuscript. Via consultation with faculty who are experts in the pedagogy of writing (particularly Lorraine Higgins, Ryan Madan, and Rob Traver) we developed process pieces that would directly or implicitly contribute to the writing process. We used student-authored, peer-reviewed articles published in the American Journal of Undergraduate Research (AJUR) as a guide and inspiration. Each offering, ~15 students (~80% typically identify as female or nonbinary) in groups of three drafted, edited, and polished their articles. Based upon my assessments of their learning, as well as a self-assessment survey, I was satisfied my objective for student learning was achieved. At the end of each year I printed and compiled the 4-5 final articles from the class, generating a neat little Journal of Cell Culture Models whose final resting place was on the desk in my office.

Then along came WPI’s EmpOwER Team, who was soliciting grant applications from faculty who wished to develop or utilize open educational resources (OER) in their classroom. Authorship for women, non-binary, and BIPOC students can be a particularly advantageous currency that may help to offset existing disparities in access to performing publishable research. Authorship opportunities as an undergraduate student are less common and have the potential to open doors to graduate study or entering the biopharmaceutical industry for these students. I viewed OER as a mechanism to empower students to publish the journal articles describing the models they built and tested.

I was delighted to receive funding to disseminate these student works in an open access format. I was very new to the OER landscape and how to publish within it; far more valuable than the funds were the people on the EmpOwER team and in my cohort of awardees who are experts in creating and utilizing OER (attributions below!). The team sat down with me to see where I was starting from- a relatively well-packaged journal findable by nobody other than me. They helped me map out a path to produce a refined journal that would be available via open access on the DigitalWPI platform hosted by the Gordon Library at WPI. Further, they identified ways to improve the development of these articles by authentically immersing the students in the publication process. In the seven-week term we decided the expectation for the course would be students would specifically follow all the “instructions to authors” as if they were submitting to AJUR, become aware of the peer review process, and have their articles published on the DigitalWPI website as part of the Journal of Cell Culture Models. The EmpOwER team provided resources for operationalizing this as well- particularly for obtaining student permissions via a memorandum of understanding, and providing ideas on how to assess student engagement and learning in the publication process. The final output from the course was the digital, accessible, OER version of the Journal of Cell Culture Models deposited on DigitalWPI. I am very proud of the engagement and effort my students displayed in their contributions to this collection! I will build off this inaugural digital issue by adding a volume sharing the works of the students each year moving forward. Beyond the class, I shared the collection with the editor of AJUR to explore submitting to the journal. Two articles were selected, and all 5 students (who identify as female) elected to finalize their articles for formal submission. The students also identified potential reviewers, and wrote cover letters to the editor. Upon review one article was accepted pending minor changes, and the other was encouraged to resubmit an updated version based on reviewer concerns. Both groups have completed their revisions and generated a “response to reviewers”, which have been submitted back to the editor for final review. I anticipate both articles will be officially published soon!

My role through this process can best be described as a facilitator; the role of the students was as authentic authors. Artifacts generated through this initiative include the DigitalWPI collection and two articles to be published (hopefully!) in AJUR. Student assessment instruments we developed will be published in open access format. All of this was conceived, developed, and made a reality through the expertise and insight of the EmpOwER Team. Thank you to my direct mentors Marja Bakermans and Lori-Ostapowicz-Critz; my colleagues Natalie Farny, Courtney Kurlanska, Sarah Stanlick, and Anna Gold; and our student reviewer Hannah Shell. I am very grateful to all my student authors (past, present, and future) for their investment and dedication! They truly empowered themselves in their development as scientists.

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