The College launches new Online Undergraduate Research Scholars program


Recent ASU graduate Jacquie Krause (left) with School of Life Sciences Lecturer Susan Holechek during a pilot OURS program summer group-based research experience for online students where they were given the opportunity to learn and practice some common molecular biology techniques. Photo by Louisa Brill

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As online learning continues to see significant growth at higher education institutions around the country, The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Arizona State University is expanding opportunities that are traditionally offered in person to the digital environment with the launch of the Online Undergraduate Research Scholars (OURS) program. The new program will offer hands-on, experiential learning specifically for students enrolled through ASU Online.

“The OURS program reinforces The College’s commitment to excellence and inclusion by creating opportunities that enable students to feel well-equipped for their future careers. We are excited this program is the first of its kind at the university for online students and has the potential to serve the nearly 58,000 undergraduate students enrolled in online degree programs at ASU,” said Patrick Kenney, dean of The College.

Recent research from School of Life Sciences professors Sara Brownell and Katelyn Cooper, as well as Grad Service Assistant Logan Gin, found that 82% of ASU Online students surveyed are pursuing career goals in medicine and scientific research. In addition, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Inclusive Excellence Faculty Team found that more than half of the online students surveyed in introductory biology courses had not heard about research opportunities at ASU that they could participate in online or remotely and 31% did not think they were qualified to conduct research.

“Our online students are an integral part of the greater ASU community, and they are here to stay,” said Ara Austin, director of online engagement and strategic initiatives and a clinical assistant professor in the School of Molecular Sciences, who has spearheaded the OURS program. “The fact that research opportunities are not widely available to online students across the academic disciplines is an issue that we needed to address as an institution. We hope that the OURS program will be able to generate creative, scalable solutions that will provide critical experiential learning experiences to the online students.”

The program, led by The College and supported by EdPlus at ASU, launched this fall in The College’s natural sciences division with plans to expand to the social sciences and humanities divisions in the next academic year. Almost a dozen faculty and staff members have contributed feedback and ideas to help formulate the OURS program.

The OURS program also builds on other undergraduate research opportunities offered across The College including the Undergraduate Research Apprenticeship program from the School of Human Evolution and Social Change. The apprenticeship program allows students to work directly with faculty members and their teams on research projects, with many of the positions having the flexibility to be completed online from anywhere in the world.

The OURS program is composed of several components, including:

  • Providing seed funding to faculty to develop and launch group-based research courses for online students. During group-based research experiences, the online students will work in teams to contribute to a research project or research question. Some of these experiences will be offered in a hybrid format, and some of the experiences will be offered in a fully remote format.

  • Providing scholarships to online students who have excelled in their research endeavors.

  • Creating a new introductory course titled Foundations of Undergraduate Research that will focus on teaching research principles and will function as a professional development training program for online students interested in research. 

  • Organizing community-building events such as research symposiums and professional development workshops for online students.

This summer, a group-based research experience for online students was piloted and led by Susan Holechek, a lecturer in the School of Life Sciences. Fifteen students from Holechek’s online general genetics course attended a four-day, in-person research experience on ASU’s Tempe campus. The students were given the opportunity to learn and practice some common molecular biology techniques in the framework of two authentic research projects in the area of population genetics. 

Louisa Brill, an ASU Online student studying biological sciences and biochemistry, participated in the pilot immersion program and said it was her first time conducting in-person research.

“Lack of in-person research experiences are the biggest concern for most online science majors, and there is a huge demand for programs such as OURS,” Brill said. “For most of us it was our first experience doing research of any kind, let alone in person. Although I am pursuing a degree in science, it was the first time I actually thought of myself as a scientist, and I know a lot of the others shared that feeling. This experience showed me that there are many ways to contribute to this field and that every contribution is meaningful because there is always more to learn.”

Brill added that she left the experience with a new mindset and the skills to feel confident enough to pursue further endeavors in research.

“While the program expanded greatly on my knowledge of genetics and provided me with very marketable skills and experiences to add to my resume, it also instilled in me a passion for conducting research and an interest in cultivating that in my future career,” she said.

Brill was invited to join Holechek’s lab and is now contributing to an ongoing project led by a graduate student. She will also serve as a teaching assistant for the upcoming immersion program in October.

When undergraduate students participate in research, there can be a number of benefits including an increase in confidence in their research abilities and a higher likelihood of students pursuing graduate school. Research experiences are also linked with higher retention rates and have been found to impact students’ self-efficacy and career choices in STEM, especially for underrepresented minority students.

“As an undergraduate, I struggled until my professor engaged me in their research,” said Julie Greenwood, associate professor and vice dean for educational initiatives at EdPlus. “The experience completely changed my life, and it is why I am where I am today. ASU is committed to bringing transformative experiences, such as undergraduate research, to our online students. The OURS Program will change lives.”

For questions about the OURS program, contact Ara Austin at ara.austin@asu.edu.

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