Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder

Novice-to-Expert: Immersive Undergraduate Research Transforms Students

CU Boulder-led study shows STEM program advances students’ ability to analyze scientific material

After 9 weeks immersed in a research experience at the University of Colorado Boulder, undergraduate students could analyze scientific papers and graphs more like experts, according to a new CIRES-led study. Researchers tracked the students’ eye movements while reading complex graphs and academic papers before and after the program. The students didn’t just become booksmart—they fundamentally shifted their reading patterns when tackling scientific material, the researchers say.  

“We knew that these programs helped students spark interest and prepare for science career, but this study reveals they didn’t just improve their research skills, they actually started behaving like real experts,” said Anne Gold, director of CIRES’ Education & Outreach (E&O) and lead author on the study out this month in the Journal of the Council on Undergraduate Research. “After RECCS, the students honed in on the critical parts of graphs, extracted key info from complex figures and analyzed a paper just like a trained scientist would.”

The Research Experiences for Community College Students (RECCS) program, led by CIRES E&O at CU Boulder, brings in eager community college students from across Colorado and pairs them with scientists for an authentic research experience in environmental or Earth science. The program allows students to gain the confidence to transition to a four-year program in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) disciplines and inspires them for a career in the field. In 2022, RECCS will welcome its 9th cohort of students. 

Gold and her team collected data for this study back in 2015. The team onboarded a cohort of 10 students, pairing each with a mentor scientist. For 9 weeks the students worked closely with their mentors and CIRES educators, reading papers and interpreting graphs, leading their own research and presenting their findings at the end of the program—including at major scientific conferences like the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting. RECCS is just one of many National Science Foundation-funded Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) programs across the country to adopt this style of immersive science education. 

Previous studies relied on students self-reporting their improvement after REU programs, which can differ student-to-student and aren’t always reliable. Gold and her team took it to the next level: they used eye-tracking cameras to objectively analyze exactly how the students’ scientific skills, such as reading papers and scientific graphs, improved as they tackled scientific material. 

Eye tracking differences in novices vs experts. Figure: CIRES

Novices read scientific papers line-by-line—and experts laser in on specific information, the authors say. Before RECCS, when presented with a scientific paper, the student cohort behaved like novices, carefully reading the paper from beginning to end. But when they were presented with another paper after 9 weeks, their eye patterns changed dramatically. After RECCS, most students first honed in on the heading and the intro sentences, then focused in on data in graphs, followed by skimming selected sections of the paper’s text—the most effective way of extracting and understanding key findings from the material. That’s what scientists do, says Gold. 

“Not only did we see the measurable improvement in the students’ skills, but the students also self-reported feeling more confident when approaching scientific material,” said Gold. “Through this program they didn’t just learn what scientists do—they became scientists.”

CIRES is a partnership of NOAA and CU Boulder.


Anne Gold
CIRES Education & Outreach director, lead author
Katie Weeman
CIRES Communications

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