FUTURE in Biology program receives NSF grant to explore field courses as a tool for equity

The project will fund three two-year postdoctoral research fellows, who will work together with the FUTURE team to design studies and cultivate communities focused on recruiting and retaining a diverse group of students in biology and beyond.

Each year at the University of California Santa Cruz, about 5,000 undergraduate students participate in field courses that take them outside the classroom and into the natural world. Field courses and research opportunities build skills and create communities. They can inspire students to pursue new pathways and encourage them to stay in a particular discipline, but they can also serve as barriers to entry.

A group of researchers at UC Santa Cruz recently received a $1.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation to study the impacts of these field courses and develop best practices for making them more accessible. The project, Field-based Undergraduate Training: Utilizing Research for Equity (FUTURE) in Biology, will fund three two-year postdoctoral research fellows. The fellows will work together with the FUTURE team to design studies and cultivate communities focused on recruiting and retaining a diverse group of students in biology and beyond.

“A field course at UC Santa Cruz 10 years ago inspired me to pursue a career path in wildlife biology and continue on in my undergraduate studies,” said Roxanne Beltran, the principal investigator on the grant and an ecology and evolutionary biology professor at UC Santa Cruz. Lina Arcila Hernández, a postdoctoral fellow and senior personnel on the FUTURE program, had a similar experience. 

“I went to a field course in Colombia, and it was a whole path that I didn’t know existed in biology. That took me into a very different career than I expected initially when I first started undergrad,” she said. After moving to the United States, field courses again shaped Arcila Hernández’s path by helping her form a community and a professional network. But field courses, when not intentionally planned, can also have the opposite effect.

“Traditionally, field courses have been a filter for our field in certain ways, and we want to turn that on its head and make them into a pathway for more people to find their passions in this area,” said Erika Zavaleta, a Co-PI on the project and a professor in ecology and evolutionary biology at UC Santa Cruz. Zavaleta recalls encouraging one student to continue with summer field research, but the student had to return home to work with his family.

“There are a lot of reasons that people don’t continue on in field-based careers, but they are not interest and ability reasons,” said Zavaleta. Field courses often require extended time away from jobs and homes in addition to gear and comfort camping, hiking or swimming.

“For me, this is part of a career-long process to understand why field-based courses are so important to people in our disciplines and how to make them work well for students from a much wider range of experience and backgrounds,” said Zavaleta. 

As part of the FUTURE in Biology program, the team will develop teacher training workshops to help instructors approach field-based teaching with equity and cultural sensitivity at the forefront. The program will work with 20 partners across campus and many more from the nation’s education research community to share knowledge and identify scalable solutions.

“UC Santa Cruz is perfectly positioned to become a real powerhouse in education research,” said Beltran. As one of only a handful of institutions in the United States that are classified as both research-intensive (R1) and a Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI), UC Santa Cruz has extensive support for programs that facilitate inclusive research opportunities. The campus is also a leader in equity-minded teaching. One of the project’s co-PIs, Robin Dunkin, is the Faculty Director of The Teaching and Learning Center (TLC) at UC Santa Cruz. Along with many campus partners, Dunkin has developed a wide net of support to help faculty, postdocs, and graduate students excel. The FUTURE in Biology program is another example of faculty innovating and leading in high impact practices to serve our undergraduate students.

The program builds on a strong foundation laid by many campus partners, along with the team's recent discovery that field courses are powerful educational tools. “We have all the right people. It’s the right time. We’re at the right place. This financial support will empower postdoc fellows to jumpstart the education research and create a scaffolded community that bridges our individual lab groups and department with the whole university,” said Beltran. The program aligns with the campus-wide priorities of inclusive excellence and re-imagining leadership. 

The first year of the program will involve building the team and learning how to scale the education research approaches. The researchers will use qualitative methods, such as interviewing students about their experiences, as well as dig into institutional data about when field opportunities are most beneficial for undergraduates. The insights from this program will position a diverse next generation of leaders to tackle grand challenges including climate change and environmental justice. 

The program will begin in September of 2024 and run through December of 2026. The FUTURE team is currently looking for postdoctoral fellow applicants. For more information and a link to the application, visit https://recruit.ucsc.edu/apply/JPF01642.