Structuring undergraduate research to scale up participation: Our Project in Hawaii’s Intertidal (OPIHI)

Joanna Philippoff, Assistant Specialist, Curriculum & Research Development Group, University of Hawaii at Manoa, HI, United States, Florybeth Flores La Valle, University of Hawaii at Manoa, Marine Biology Graduate Program, Honolulu, HI, United States and Patrick Nichols, University of Hawaii at Manoa, Biology, Honolulu, HI, United States
Our Project in Hawaii's Intertidal (OPIHI) is a year-long undergraduate research program that immerses students in authentic intertidal and subtidal research experiences. OPIHI’s goals are to collaborate with researchers and community groups engaged in the study and management of Hawai‘i’s coastal ecosystems, to mentor the next generation of community ecologists by engaging them in authentic, place-based research, and to increase knowledge of the intertidal and shallow coastal ecosystem by using student data in scientific products. Components of the internship include field and lab work, service learning, classroom activities, community outreach & guest lecturers. As part of the project students earn 3-4 research credits in their home department towards graduation (e.g., Biology, Chemistry, Natural Resource Management).

The intertidal area and adjacent subtidal areas are culturally and ecologically important ecosystems, but they are susceptible to climate change, species invasions, over-harvesting, and land-use practices. The long-term monitoring needed to detect changes, and provide insight as to the cause of those changes, is difficult to implement. OPIHI enables the collection of longitudinal intertidal data that would otherwise be too costly, time-consuming, or labor-intensive. By partnering with scientists through a unique nested framework, student data contributes to larger research frameworks and the scientists gain access to manpower to gather data from difficult-to-study environments.

The unique tiered structure of OPIHI, including full-cohort and small-group projects, individual coursework, educational outreach, and purposeful network building, scaffolds undergraduates' engagement in the scientific process and allows for the scaling up of undergraduate independent research by spreading the time-consuming task of mentoring between a number of collaborators. To date, the OPIHI program has involved 58 interns in 5 year-long cohorts. Through interviews and pre-post questionnaires we have shown that OPIHI enhances their knowledge of the scientific process and improves their communication and critical thinking skills, and invite other programs to consider this model to enhance undergraduate access to quality research experiences.