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Undergrad Research Benefits NSF's Enhancing Learning by Improving Process Skills

Composite of student researcher portraits and application snapshot. Left is Jacky Zheng and on the right is Runqi Zhao.


Runqi Zhao and Jacky Zheng of the class of 2020 built a web application that allows instructors to assess practical and intellectual skills of students during a class period and share the results of those assessments with students. Skills such as communication, teamwork, critical thinking, and problem solving are frequently cited as important outcomes for STEM degree programs. These skills are not only useful for students as they enter STEM fields, but they are also critical for students to be successful learners within active learning classrooms. While the development of these skills is often a general goal for courses and programs, the cultivation of these skills is seldom explicitly discussed or assessed in the classroom. A key component of supporting skill development is the ability for instructors to provide feedback to their students based on observations during class. The web application contributes to a larger effort called Enhancing Learning by Improving Process Skills (ELIPSS), an NSF-funded project co-led by Professor Renée Cole in the UI Chemistry department.


As of Jacky and Runqi's graduation, we have a fully functioning web application in the "alpha testing" phase. We've received initial feedback on the user interface from instructors from several institutions. We currently have instructors at three universities who have piloted or will pilot the application with students. The code for the application is available at

Undergraduate Researcher Q&A

How was your experience at Iowa -- including research, courses, and other outside-the-department endeavors?

Runqi Zhao: People at Iowa University are very friendly. The professors and teaching assistants in class are conscientious and professional in their major. Every time I have problems and confusion of class assignments and visit their office due to that, they are always very willing to offer help. The way they teach students in class is also inspiring. The instructors are always trying to lead the students to explore the answer by themselves instead of telling them the answer. Students are encouraged to discuss in a group. It's such a good way to develop students' self-learning ability. I am so glad I received the education here.

Jacky Zheng: My experience at Iowa is excellent, the courses are mostly well-planned, professors and teaching assistants distributed their office hours in a great way such that it has never been a hard thing to look for help. The research project is a great opportunity to develop my practical skills and consolidate what I learned in the classes.

What did you learn by participating in research projects?

Runqi: My instructor in this research is Brandon Myers. He is very professional in this field and very kind to me. He always listens to my questions carefully and gives me helpful instructions. Through his help, Jacky and I was able to build this website successfully. Besides the completion of tasks, professor Myers also instructs me to set a working plan for the research and adjust the plan properly according to the Chemistry Department's requirement. I also learned how to use git hub to keep track of the project and cooperate with others. Those experiences will be priceless to me when I find a job. 

Jacky: The research project I participated brought me into a real client and developer scenario, and it taught me how to communicate with our clients and a more efficient way to approach their demands. Another important thing I learned is teamworking, the research project gave me a chance to experience workload distribution inside a 3-member developers team.

What are you planning to do after graduation?

Runqi: Through this research, I realize what I want is using my knowledge of computer science to build some applications that can really help people. As I know, Artificial intelligence is broadly used in many areas, which brings convenience to life, but I have not learned much in this field, so I plan to go to graduate school for the studying of machine learning. 

Jacky: I’m planning to continue my career and pursue a master's degree of Computer Science.

What advice do you have for our students?

Runqi: In the first two years of my college life, I didn't know what I really like to do after graduation because I spend so much time staying at home and not using the resource from the university. The fact is our college staff is always willing to offer help and opportunity to students who want to do some real job and would like to work hard, so don't be shy and reach out for instructions, they won't let you down.

Jacky: Try your best to communicate with your favorite professor and ask for a chance to participate in their research projects for a semester or two, it will give you invaluable experiences that you will never have in any other courses.

Enhancing Learning by Improving Process Skills in STEM (ELIPSS) is an NSF-funded project that focuses on the identification, development, and assessment of process skills (also known as professional skills, lifelong learning skills, workplace skills, transferable skills, or soft skills) in active learning, undergraduate STEM classrooms. Assessing process skill development and providing feedback to students and instructors is a key component for enhancing these skills in STEM programs.