Transforming the Cobb Research Laboratory into an Informal STEM Learning Resource Center

By Dr. Fatimah Jackson, Director

We are making a sincere effort to transform the CRL into an informal STEM Learning Resource Center. The rationale for this effort and our current capabilities are outlined in this article.

The Underrepresentation of African Americans in the STEM-disciplines.

The deficiency of ethnic minorities and women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines is a critical national concern (Hernandez et al 2013). Among women and underrepresented minorities (URMs), African Americans (AAs) disproportionately leave the STEM disciplines. While a number of underlying reasons have been proposed for this recurring and disturbing pattern, there is a paucity of data on the key obstacles to successful recruitment, retention, and sustained commitment in AA students to the STEM fields. The 6-yr degree-completion rate of undergraduate STEM majors at U.S. colleges and universities is less than 40% (Toven-Lindsey et al 2015) and AA students leave the STEM disciplines at even higher rates. Increasing the success of URMs and particularly AAs in the STEM fields translates into greater individual rewards, economic reimbursement (Museus et al 2011), societal stability, and social justice. Strategies to reverse this inequality are critically needed. Informal STEM learning opportunities can serve as an essential stopgap for some of this loss. In this regard, facilities such as the W. Montague Cobb Research Laboratory (CRL) at Howard University can play a major role in reversing this trend.

The Cobb Research Laboratory.


Founded in 1931 by distinguished professor of anatomy and biological anthropology Dr. William Montague Cobb, the Cobb Research Laboratory (CRL) is an interdisciplinary research unit at Howard University. The CRL currently occupies 3000 square feet in Frederick Douglass Memorial Hall and provides offices, archives, and two laboratories housing two major collections of human skeletal, dental, and bioarchaeological materials. The CRL serves as a research magnet for students from the College of Arts and Sciences, the College of Dentistry, the College of Nursing, and the College of Engineering and Computer Sciences. The CRL is emerging as an informal STEM learning facility offering diverse research opportunities for self-directed learning, incidental learning, and socialization, or tacit learning (see Merriam et al., 2007), three of the four major forms of informal STEM learning. The CRL also serves as an important community outreach site for public access to science.

Research Collections of the CRL.

The two major collections housed at the CRL are the New York African Burial Ground remains and the Cobb Collection, representing 400 years of African American biological history. Our 17th and 18th century samples are derived from the New York African Burial Ground (NYABG) remains currently housed at Howard University and on loan from the National Park Service. The NYABG is the nation’s earliest and largest African burial ground (LaRoche and Blakey, 1997). These previously buried samples reflect African/African American biological diversity from the late 17th to late 18th centuries in New Amsterdam/New York. While there are over 400 burials, we have well-documented, archived biological remnants from 250 individuals. Our 19th and 20th century samples come from the Cobb Collection (CC). The CC contains 699 individuals from the mid to late 19th and early to mid 20th centuries. It the nation’s third largest collection of human skeletal remains and is the largest containing a majority of African American individuals (83%).

Scientific and Educational Value of Collections.

Combined, the NYABG and the CC represent 400 years or approximately 20 generations of African and African American biological history. This timeframe has been understudied in the academy yet holds the key to providing evidence for key processes in human evolutionary biology (e.g., evidence of past selective sweeps, changes in mutation rates, evidence of gene flow [admixture], and opportunities for genetic drift). These collections also serve as major inspiration for the students who have affiliated themselves with the CRL. This unique collection is highly relevant (both socially and biologically) for many of our recruited students and access to these materials for study serves as a stimulus for student engagement in STEM-affiliated disciplines.

Past Student Recruitment Efforts and Activities.

Based largely on the research appeal of our collections, the CRL has recruited over 100 undergraduate and graduate students to study various aspects of either the NYABG or the CC since August 2013. All of these students were URMs and 97% of these students were ethnically African American. Their academic majors have included biology, chemistry, history, sociology, anthropology, English, and computer sciences. Since August 2014, the Cobb Research Laboratory has mentored 87 undergraduates, graduate students, post-doctoral fellows and post-bacs and provided professional research opportunities for over a half-dozen faculty members from diverse colleges at Howard University as well as from external institutions. Additionally, for the second year in a row, we have hosted the research component of the SMDEP program.

Current Goals and Working Hypotheses.

With this record of accomplishment in mind, we would like to now take the CRL the next level to become an Informal STEM Learning Resource Center. This effort entails the following goals and working hypotheses:

  1. Increase Recruitment and Retention. We aim to double our recruitment and retention of underrepresented ethnic minority students to STEM-related investigations at the Cobb Research Laboratory. As in the past, this will be done using the lab’s unique collection of four centuries of African American biology and history as a sustainable enticement to student interest and participation and our interdisciplinary approach to the study of these materials. We will also use our connections in social media to attract additional students from a broad cross-section of disciplines. Our working hypothesis is that: Successful commitment to STEM is enhanced by accentuating the cultural and historical ties of students to the research materials.
  2. Develop a culturally supportive climate. We know from past experience that student retention and knowledge transfer is facilitated in a reinforcing and nurturing environment, particularly one in which their innate talents are recognized, rewarded, and encouraged (see Leslie et al 2015). We seek to maintain an informal STEM learning setting that promotes student investment in the conceptualization and implementation of research-associated activities, including data generation and analysis, hypothesis testing, interpretation, presentation, and publication of research results, peer-mentorship, and self-refection on their role as an emerging research scientist. The rationale for this goal is our working hypothesis that: A proactive environment free of prejudice and discrimination promotes student investment in STEM learning.
  3. Develop diverse pathways for student engagement in STEM. When students have research options, student commitment to the STEM disciplines is strengthened. We want to expand the research opportunities currently available at CRL to include aDNA analysis, 3D and X-ray imaging, SQL database, oral microbiome evaluations, and facial reconstruction. This strategy will enhance increase the chances of finding a “good fit” between the student researchers and a specific research project. Our working hypothesis is that: Providing multiple opportunities for student engagement in STEM research topics optimizes student interest and commitment in STEM learning.
  4. Define measurable assessments at critical junctures. We want to provide multiyear quantitative and qualitative assessments of student engagement in informal STEM learning at the CRL for comparative evaluations. This will allow us to determine which steps in our Schedule of Student Activities  are most effective and why.****