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Undergraduate Education

Research programs at community colleges grow

Educators and officials pave a path for community college students to attain a career in science

by Celia Henry Arnaud
June 30, 2019 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 97, Issue 26

Photo of professor Regan Silvestri and student Helen He.
Credit: Ronald Jantz/Lorain County Community College
Professor Regan Silvestri (left) at Lorain County Community College and student Helen He discuss whiskey samples.

Magaly Guzman Sosa graduated with her bachelor’s degree in May from California State University San Marcos. In August she’ll be starting in the neuroscience PhD program at Purdue University. She’s a success story of how undergraduate research can help set community college students on the path to careers in science.

That’s right—community college students. Although many community college students start school with the intention of transferring to a 4-year institution, statistics from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center for the cohort that entered community college in 2011 show that only about 29% of them actually did. And of those, only 42%, or 12% of the original cohort, had received a bachelor’s degree by 2017.

Guzman Sosa started at Palomar College, which is part of California’s community college system. She didn’t think research was something she could do as a community college student. But while at Palomar, she got the opportunity to participate in the Chemistry Connections for Community College Students (4Cs) program at the University of California San Diego.

The 4Cs program, which ran from 2015 to 2017, was a US National Science Foundation–funded Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program targeted specifically at community college students within commuting distance of UC San Diego. Its aim was to help these students transfer successfully to colleges and universities for their bachelor’s degrees. After participating in the 4Cs program, Guzman Sosa continued to conduct research in the lab of UC San Diego chemistry professor Brian Zid, her NSF REU faculty mentor, even after she transferred to California State University San Marcos.

As recognition grows that introducing undergraduate research earlier in a student’s education can be an important recruitment and retention tool for the sciences, more people are trying to make research opportunities available to community college students.

We’re accustomed to operating on a shoestring budget.
Regan Silvestri, chemistry professor, Lorain County Community College

Those opportunities come in various forms. Some programs focus on course-based undergraduate research experiences, or CUREs. Others offer more conventional research experiences, either at the community college or at nearby research universities. Although the number of these programs is growing, such programs still reach only a fraction of community college science students.

The Community College Undergraduate Research Initiative (CCURI) is spreading the word about the benefits of doing research at community colleges and is helping professors jump-start programs there. CCURI is funded through the NSF’s Improving Undergraduate STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) Education, or IUSE, program.

James Hewlett, founder and executive director of CCURI and a biology professor at Finger Lakes Community College, started doing research with community college students in 2003 when a colleague asked him whether the sex of red-tailed hawks could be determined from blood samples. Hewlett didn’t know the answer, so he recruited two students to start up a project and find out.

“I’m not an education researcher, so I wasn’t aware of the studies that had been done on the impact of undergrad research” and how beneficial it could be, Hewlett says. “I just went off the fact that when I was working on a project with students, they were excited and I was excited.”

That first project was so successful that Hewlett started looking for ways to get more students involved in research. Time is in short supply for both community college faculty (because of high teaching loads) and their students (because of jobs and family commitments), so the most efficient way to introduce research is in courses that are already part of the curriculum.

Hewlett reorganized his biology course and lab so that students learned about case studies in the classroom portion that were related to an ongoing research project the students worked on during lab periods. For example, students learned about DNA structure and function during class in the context of DNA bar-coding techniques that they carried out in lab and then used in an ongoing biodiversity project at the college.

At Southwestern Michigan College, chemistry students have the option of doing research as part of an honors program, according to chemistry professor Douglas J. Schauer. Honors students take the same class and lab as other students at the community college. They receive honors credit by doing additional independent research.

While interviewing for the job at SMC, Schauer answered questions about how he would implement a research program if he won the position. It was a big switch from his previous community college, he says, where he was able to “get away with” doing research with students, but it wasn’t actively encouraged.

“We have a culture of research now” at SMC, Schauer says. “That’s the most difficult thing to establish when you’re talking about research at community college, getting people to buy into that culture of research.” Time and money are in short supply.

Getting formal institutional support from administration is particularly difficult, Hewlett says. The administration at Finger Lakes Community College has bought into undergraduate research, but in his role as CCURI executive director, he has seen programs at other community colleges collapse when the main champion on campus was no longer there. CCURI makes a point of asking members what would happen to the research program at their colleges if they left. “If the answer is it would probably end, then there’s more work to be done” in establishing formal support, Hewlett says.

CCURI is undertaking a study of its partners to try to understand the conditions that lead to successful research programs at community colleges. The programs range widely, Hewlett says. On one end of the spectrum, the programs “are so sustainable that they don’t ask us for much anymore because their programs are really well off and institutionalized,” he says. “At the other end are institutions where it’s still only a few individuals” running the show, he says. “They just keep spinning their wheels.”

CCURI is still crunching numbers and going through interviews. But one factor is already popping out as being a key to success. “Every one of the institutions that’s doing really well has undergraduate research aligned with some major institutional priority that shows up in its strategic plan or in its mission or vision [statement],” Hewlett says.

Still, even for community colleges with successful undergraduate research programs, smoothly transitioning students into labs at 4-year institutions can be challenging.

Becky Wai-Ling Packard, an educational psychologist at Mount Holyoke College, studies transfer success in STEM. She finds that even students with previous research experience can have a tough time finding a lab to work in after they transfer because the professors don’t know them. “Would you take a risk on someone you have never had in class?” she asks. “It’s an unavoidable barrier for transfer students. It’s impossible for them to have an endorsement from faculty who’ve never met them.”

One way to get around that problem is by establishing relationships between faculty at community colleges and the institutions their students typically transfer to. “When a faculty member at the 4-year [school] respects and understands the research that’s taking place at the community college, they’re much more likely to be excited about and looking for those incoming students,” Packard says.

Photo of a woman standing in front of a scientific research poster.
Credit: Courtesy of Carolyn Nichol
Community college student Mariana López Martinolich presents her research during a poster session at Rice University.

Several programs are geared toward establishing such relationships. For example, California State University, San Bernardino (CSUSB), through its NSF-funded Center for Advanced Functional Materials, is teaming up with several nearby community colleges to provide research experiences for community college students. The university provides support, but most of the research happens at the community colleges, where students participate in a paid “winternship” during the January semester break.

One such community college is the College of the Desert. Multiple student cohorts have participated in a project there developing methods to detect sulfur and selenium in the nearby Salton Sea, chemistry professor Robert Guinn says.

At Victor Valley College, winternship students have developed methods to isolate and purify the enzyme alcohol dehydrogenase from yeast to use in biochemistry kinetics labs. They also used some of the enzyme for a collaboration with California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, on the sources of error in enzyme kinetic measurements. “We’re waiting to see if we get a publication out of it,” says Thomas J. Kennedy, a chemistry professor at Victor Valley College.

Another instance of a research university targeting community colleges in its own backyard is happening at Rice University. Rice offers an REU program in nanotechnology for students at Houston community colleges.

“We wanted to broaden participation,” says Carolyn Nichol, who runs Rice’s program. “There’s a lot of research that shows that having these research experiences helps students transfer successfully.” Rice has started a second REU program for community college students with Arizona State University and the University of Texas at El Paso as part of the Nanosystems Engineering Research Center for Nanotechnology-Enabled Water Treatment, or NEWT. Both programs resemble UC San Diego’s 4Cs program.

For these partnerships, the strongest resistance comes from the community colleges rather than the university, Nichol says. “The problem was getting the students at community colleges to buy in,” she adds. “They see Rice as being very scary and not a place where they would fit in.”

When the Rice program started, students were required to have taken chemistry, calculus-based physics, and calculus. But the Rice organizers soon realized these stringent requirements weren’t necessary.

“You want to recruit students who are hungry for the work and are really enthusiastic,” Nichol says. Having realistic expectations about what the students can accomplish in 10 weeks is important, she says.

Nichol plans to use data from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board to compare outcomes of students who went through the REU with outcomes of a comparison group of students who didn’t have that experience.

All these programs have success stories of students who participated in the research program and have continued their studies at the bachelor’s and graduate levels. For example, a student in the Rice program graduated from Texas State University with a bachelor’s degree and from Duke University with a PhD in chemistry. He’s now a postdoc at Rice. Students from the UC San Diego 4Cs program, which is on hold as the organizers seek new funding, have not had as much time to advance as far, but several are in or about to start graduate school. Several students have successfully transferred to CSUSB, and one, Sarah Rodriguez, will start graduate school at the University of California, Riverside, in September, according to Kimberley Cousins, a chemistry professor at CSUSB.

Despite their successes, the programs at Rice, UC San Diego, and CSUSB have run out of funding. All three are looking for new financial support. And all three face the same hurdles they faced before. For example, reviewers thought the programs would be stronger if they drew from a national pool of candidates.

Yet another approach to doing research at community colleges involves building research groups modeled after those encountered at research universities. Regan Silvestri runs such a research group at Lorain County Community College. Inspired by his biology colleagues Harry Kestler and Kathryn Durham, who were running research programs on HIV vaccines and Lake Erie algal blooms, respectively, Silvestri wanted to start a similar program in chemistry, but he needed to come up with a research area that would work with community college students.

A professor and four students work with measurement equipment on the Salton Sea shore.
Credit: Bronwyn Horton
Professor Carl Farmer (left) and College of the Desert students Juan Trejo Pulido, Selvin Garcia, and Michelle Pichardo make measurements at the Salton Sea.

He stumbled on his topic while at an event sponsored by the local section of the Society for Applied Spectroscopy that took place at Cleveland Whiskey. The company rapidly ages clear alcohol in pressurized vessels with various kinds of wood chips, resulting in whiskeys with new flavor profiles. Silvestri’s students analyze those whiskeys with gas chromatography/mass spectrometry to determine the volatile compounds that contribute to the flavor.

Silvestri’s group has grown to 25 students since 2015. His group members include dual-enrollment high school students, traditional first-time college students, and older, nontraditional students. Some students even continue working with his group after they transfer to nearby universities.

Finding funds to carry out research is a challenge at community colleges. Many programs focus on CUREs so that the expense is part of the budget for an already-approved class.


But Silvestri does research outside the class, so he has to drum up money in other ways. He submits about 10 proposals for small grants every year. His largest grants have been for $60,000 and $40,000. The rest have been under $10,000.

“A modest ask is a lot less competitive and therefore easier to get. If I can write three proposals for $3,000 or $4,000, at the end of the semester I’ve got $10,000,” Silvestri says. “Maybe that’s not a lot, but for a community college, it’s fine. We’re accustomed to operating on a shoestring budget.” He uses the money to underwrite students’ expenses traveling to meetings to present their work.

Silvestri and his group have added other partners in addition to Cleveland Whiskey. In one project, the students are helping an Akron, Ohio–based start-up establish quality-control routines for manufacturing dry adhesives.

“We have these practical, applied topics because they’re all in collaboration with community partners,” Silvestri says. “We’re a community college, so we’re part of the community.”

An advantage of doing research in community colleges is the confidence boost it gives students. And that added confidence means such students have a better chance of finding a lab at their transfer school or at a conventional REU site, Mount Holyoke’s Packard says. Hewlett, the CCURI executive director, agrees. “They come in not confident in general,” he says. “Giving them ownership of something that’s part of their education really elevates that confidence level.”

Guzman Sosa, the former community college student who’s headed to Purdue for graduate school, visited her community college in May. She gave a presentation about her research on the aggregation of a human neurodegenerative protein in yeast that she’s carrying out in Zid’s lab at UC San Diego. She wanted to let students know that even if they think research isn’t possible for them as community college students that such opportunities exist.


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