Project Overview

There is increasing public pressure on universities to provide students with relevant career skills in a cost-effective manner. The goal of this proposal is to expand and enhance the educational and career opportunities available to students in Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology (MCDB) and related majors (e.g. Biochemistry, IPHY) through a series of practicum modules implemented in the newly created Skills Center (SC) ( While standard course work in MCDB provides students with a background in the foundational ideas of modern biology, opportunities to develop and demonstrate competence in practical experience-based skills can be limited.  Without such demonstrable skills, students’ access to the independent research opportunities that a research-focused institution such as UC Boulder is uniquely positioned to provide can be limited.  Moreover, the absence of such skills can limit students’ post-graduation opportunities and employability. The goals of this proposal are to expand, in collaboration with other institutions/departments, the available SC modules, develop micro-credential badging of stackable skills, and evaluate the impact of SC modules on student agency.

Project Purpose

A major drive for establishing the MCD Biology Skills Center (and the MCDB 1234 and 3456 courses) in 2021-22 was the recognition that a number of educational opportunities are closed to students due to students’ lack of demonstrated technical skills. Consider, for example, the ability of a student to take part in independent study research projects (a common pre-requisite for continuing to graduate school or employment as a research technician).  Currently the number of such opportunities is limited; research labs simply do not have the resources in terms of personnel and funds to train students “from the bottom up.”

By establishing a staffed Skills Center within MCDB, located in an under-utilized lab space, we have provided students with the opportunity to obtain certification in basic but key experimental skills  Mastery of such skills dramatically increases the usefulness of a student to a research lab, and ipso facto enhances what the students gain from such experiences. The self-paced nature of Skills Center-based certification process also offers an alternative path that enables students without the free time needed for more open-ended independent study projects to develop and demonstrate valuable skills. The proposed two-six week skill modules offered by the Center include rigorous certifications that serve to demonstrate student mastery of specific skills. We are working with the department so that successful (certified) completion of 10-14 weeks of module activities will count as two credit hours on the student’s academic transcript and that these credits can be used to replace other departmental laboratory course requirements such that there is no net increase in degree requirements. Additionaly we are working to create micro-credentials for stacked skills that can be completed outside of a regular credit hour requirement.

Stakeholders + Needs (125)

Undergraduate STEM students

              Needs: Real world practical skills to enhance success after graduation.

Research Faculty (from MCDB, EBIO, BIOCHEM, IPHY and perhaps CHEM and PYSCH/NEUROSCI)

              Needs: Decrease the burden for bringing undergraduates into the lab environment and improve success

Local Biopharma and Biotech companies

              Needs: Practically trained employees who can immediately contribute

Intended Impact

Besides the practical and career benefits of achieving certified laboratory skills, the program offers flexibility to students who, for financial or other reasons, may not be able to commit to time-intensive traditional independent study projects. It also recognizes that there is no one educational outcome that suits the needs of all students.  As an example, MCDB majors may enter graduate school in pursuit of a research-based Ph.D., enter medical training to earn an M.D., P.A., or other health care certification, enter the business world in a number of occupations, from investment, intellectual property, or management, or may enter the world of public policy and communications. We envision the Center to function as a focal point to facilitate students’ transition to working directly with a faculty member, or in a range of internship-type situations. The Skills Center will serve to catalyze the formation of interest groups to provide support and community for various groups of students, including those taking the Computer Science Minor, the business minor (in A&S), working as interns in the Tech Transfer or CU Foundation offices, or off-campus with various commercial enterprises. As the Center develops, we anticipate that it will organize courses focused on developing expertise in public policy, science communication, education, and out-reach. Finally, the Center could help coordinate various volunteer opportunities, such as those now offered by the Boulder County Medical Society for students interested in the health care professions. Training in genetic counseling and the tools involved is an obvious future direction. Taken together, the Center’s offerings can be expected fill a needed gap in student training and to help students’ identify and pursue training and educational experiences relevant to their future careers. We envision our impact to be broad reaching and are currently working with UT Austin, Front Range community College and Austin community college to develop cross institution certifications.

Team Description

Professor Michael Stowell, Interim Director and Skills Center Faculty Proctor. Skills Center Management, Skills Identification, SOP drafting, outreach to stake holders

Professor Michael Klymkowsky, Interim-Co-Director and Skills Center Faculty Proctor. Skills Center Management, Skills Identification, SOP drafting, outreach to stake holders

Zachery Hazlett, Skills Center Graduate TA Proctor, Module building, operations, student assessment

Team Gaps

Assesment expertise, micro-crediential expertise

Intended Scale 

The current SC has the capacity for 30 students per semester and with additional support we expect to grow the SC to 50 students per semester. We are also working with the Front Range Community College, UT Austin and Austing Community College to expand the reach of the Skills Center and to expand beyond Colorado.

Funding Request + Intended Use of Funds 

Personnel ($32,500). Most of the funds for this initial project period will go to support staff and students to determine and establish new skills modules and their certification criterion, and to identify new core skills desired by stakeholders.  New modules will be introduced in the Fall of 2023 and help run a set of two to four skills modules. These people will include senior level undergraduate learning assistants (eight total, $3000 per student). We intend to identify a graduate researcher to work with the project team to survey stakeholders to prioritize skills module development, and to construct, apply, and evaluate outcomes assessment instruments, including observations of student behavior within modules.

Space ($0): The department as assigned ~1600 sq feet of laboratory/office space on the ground floor of Porter Bioscience.  Students carry out their skills development projects and certification tasks in this space.  The space includes office space for instructors and teaching assistants. Future costs for space renovation are not included in the budgetary requests of this proposal.

Equipment ($0): All equipment needed for this proposal has been obtained from the lead faculty labs or from other MCDB faculty on a temporary basis if needed.

Disposable Research materials ($17,500): enzymes, plasticware, glassware, culture media, DNA sequencing costs, etc. are estimated at ~$8750 per semester.

Anticipated Long-term Needs 

The long-term viability of the Center will depend upon university (tuition) based support, as well as a fund-raising through the CU Foundation, particularly through our relationships with local biotech and biopharma companies. Our goal is to raise an endowment for this student-centered program within MCDB. After the initial project period we will work within MCDB and the College of Arts and Sciences to secure a permanent staff line for the Center Director, a person we expect to identify through a national search.  Ultimately, we hope to branch out the SC to include other departments such as Biochemistry, EPOB, IPHY, CHEM, PSYCH/NEUROSCI, etc. Additionally, we have already created a working group with Front Range Community College, UT Austin and the Austin Community College to harmonize skills certification so that community college student that transfer to 4 year colleges can gain applicable skill to ensure they can effectively transition.