UH Hilo biology professor uses his own classroom to investigate best practices in undergraduate research experiences

Ecologist Matthew Knope is collaborating with researchers at Arizona State to investigate which model of teaching scientific inquiry results in better outcomes for students. And he’s using his classroom as the testing ground.

By Leah Sherwood. Symposium photos by Raiatea Arcuri.

Group photo of class.
Students in evolution class who have generated their own research data gather for a group photo at their research poster symposium, Dec. 6, 2018. Symposium photos by Raiatea Arcuri, click to enlarge.
Matthew Knope
Matthew Knope

The idea of bringing real, faculty-driven research into the classroom, rather than “cookbook” exercises with known outcomes, is commonly referred to in the field of science education by the acronym CURE or Course-based Undergraduate Research Experiences. At the forefront of this nationwide movement to upgrade undergraduate science curriculum is Matthew Knope, an evolutionary ecologist at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo specializing in speciation and extinction, who is introducing his students to advanced research methods.

“While CUREs have been largely shown to be effective for a wide variety of student learning outcomes, much remains to be learned about how to best deliver CUREs in different educational settings with a diverse array of learners,” says Knope. The ecologist is collaborating with researchers at Arizona State to investigate which model of teaching scientific inquiry results in better outcomes for students. And he’s using his classroom as the testing ground where his students generate data themselves vs working with data that is given to them.

In fall 2018, the CURE philosophy was put into practice in Knope’s evolution course (BIO 357) where students learned about organic evolution as a unifying theory of biology—topics covered the history of ideas of evolution, adaptation of populations, genetic drift, molecular evolution and the neutral theory, quantitative genetics, speciation and phylogeny, biogeography, macro-evolutionary trends, and mass extinctions. Students in the class collected data on the ecology and extinction risk of terrestrial birds and mammals and then analyzed the data in R, a computer programming environment that can be used for statistical analyses.

Maya Munstermann, a UH Hilo graduate student in the tropical conservation and environmental sciences program, provided students in the class with a list of more than 1,000 species each of birds and mammals. The students were assigned to seek out data on the habitat associations, feeding behavior, and mode of locomotion in animal life encyclopedias and peer-reviewed scientific journal articles for each species. The goal of the project was to pinpoint the combinations of ecological modes of life that are significantly associated with an elevated risk of extinction.

The students’ data analysis yielded some surprising results. In the case of mammals, the data showed that being arboreal (living in trees) elevated a species’ risk of extinction significantly over other habitat associations. For birds, species that primarily live on the ground and feed by walking around and foraging for immobile prey (such as cranes) were found to have a significantly elevated risk of going extinct.

There have been five major extinction events throughout Earth’s history, and there is general consensus among scientists that Earth is currently entering a sixth such event, appropriately designated as the Holocene or Anthropocene extinction. In a scientific study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2017, scientists used the terms “biological annihilation” and “decimation” to describe what humans are doing to other vertebrate life on the planet, ending with a final somber warning that humanity will ultimately pay the price for this widespread loss of animal life. As one student in the evolution course remarked after her presentation during the class research symposium, “once a species is lost, it is lost forever.”

Students utilized data on extinction risk from the International Union of Conservation of Nature Red List, which is an international scientific effort to inventory the conservation status of the planet’s species, ranking species from least concern all the way to already extinct. The Red List has entries on more than 96,000 species and lists a quarter of those as threatened, endangered, or already extinct. Uncovering which habitats, feeding behaviors, and modes of locomotion make species the most vulnerable is key to conservation strategies.


The students in BIO 357 presented their findings at a poster symposium at the end of last semester on Dec. 6. Melia Takakusagi, a senior majoring in biology with a concentration in cell and molecular biology, said the classroom research and presentation experiences she gained were valuable. “It taught me a lot about data analysis and it’s helped me with my communication skills,” she says. “We had to present our results in public, which is a challenge for me sometimes. But I’m hoping to go to medical school and I think these skills will help with interviews and other such things.”

Jacey Savage and Jade Wong point to their poster presentation on the PowerPoint screen with the title: "Mode of Life and Extinction Risk in Terrestrial Animals."
(Left to right) Jade Wong and Jacey Savage explain their research on “Mode of Life and Extinction Risk in Terrestrial Mammals” at the research poster symposium, Dec. 6, 2019. Other presentations below. Photos by Raiatea Arcuri/UH Hilo Stories, click to enlarge.

“Their findings were phenomenal in that we can now pinpoint a handful of combinations of basic ecological factors that are most significantly associated with the risk of extinction,” says Munstermann. “The results from these data can provide prioritization techniques directly to resource managers.”

Knope says the results of the students’ work can be applied locally here in Hawaiʻi as well. “We can definitely apply this research to aid in conservation in Hawaiʻi. In fact, the global data sets used by the students in the evolution class include Hawaiian bird species, and we can now easily extract those species from the data set and look directly at their ecological signatures of extinction risk.”

UH Hilo undergraduate biology major Michael Morrissey agrees. “These results will allow conservationists to devote resources properly when it comes to conservation,” he says.

Researching Course-based Undergraduate Research Experiences

The motivation for the transition to CURE is new research in biology education that finds undergraduates often benefit from involvement in authentic, open-ended inquiry-based research in the classroom. The CURE approach can also benefit faculty, who often think of teaching and research as competing demands on their time.

Knope is collaborating with Sara Brownell, associate professor, and Katelyn Cooper, post-doctoral scholar, of the Biology Education Research Lab at Arizona State University, who are leaders in the field of biology education research, on investigating best practices for bringing CURE into undergraduate biology classes.

In particular, the team is investigating whether students have better outcomes—project ownership, perceptions of themselves as scientists, and intentions to pursue a research-related science career—when they generate data themselves vs working with data that is given to them.

“We are testing these hypotheses and others in my evolution classes this year and next year,” explains Knope.

Munstermann believes that it is important to bring authentic, open-ended inquiry-based research into undergraduate biology classes.

“I think exposing students to statistical modeling this early on in their careers is vital if they plan to pursue any field in the biological, ecological, and conservation sciences,” Munstermann says.

Story by Leah Sherwood, a graduate student in the tropical conservation biology and environmental science program at UH Hilo. She received her bachelor of science in biology and bachelor of arts in English from Boise State University. 

Photos by Raiatea Arcuri, a professional photographer majoring in business at UH Hilo.  

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