Two-year college students can benefit from research projects

Durham Technical Community College students monitor a beaker during a science lab experiment. The college is expanding its opportunities for undergraduate research. (Photo: Durham Tech)

At a recent doctor’s appointment at Duke Hospital in Durham, North Carolina, I was asked to join a medical study. You know, the kind of research study that changes communities and industries and keeps Duke consistently ranked among the best.

It was one of those moments – the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, it’s called – where suddenly something new to you is everywhere. Like when you notice cornflower blue Hondas on every corner after you leave the Honda dealership, having purchased a cornflower blue Honda.

As the chief academic officer at Durham Technical Community College, research hasn’t always been at the forefront for us. We focus on teaching and learning – as many community colleges do – but Durham Tech has recently seen great opportunities to develop undergraduate research opportunities for our students.

Now, most people hear the term “research” and assume it’s similar to what my doctors at Duke are doing. But at community colleges, undergraduate research means experiences and inquiries that contribute to original intellectual or creative knowledge of the subject. From DNA coding to nematode studies, our students will switch projects each semester to cover a range of research opportunities.

These prestigious courses also give students a chance to enter their findings into a national database for the scientific community at-large. Students with these experiences will be well prepared to work in a lab, gain internship opportunities or transfer to a four-year institution. Not to mention, it’s an incredible way to gain more experience and a competitive edge for university students looking for more hands-on research.

Research serves all students

Students often don’t see the benefit of the additional work research projects require, particularly when they are already carrying a full course load and likely working and caring for a family. I certainly didn’t.

When I was in the military, I served as a member of a team preparing for nuclear, biological, and chemical warfare and conducted research, project administration, and data coordination for multiple, cross-functional, large-scale research studies. I never planned to go into research, and it wasn’t until years later that I began to see the value of that work.

Research experiences provide benefits even for those not planning to work in research. They can provide students with a stronger understanding of the role of science, deeper engagement and understanding of the course material, enhanced critical thinking, problem solving and analytical skills, improved self-efficacy, the ability to work on a team – all critical workplace skills that industry often finds lacking in potential job candidates.

Undergraduate research programs allow students opportunities to study the sciences in a multidisciplinary manner (meaning they work with and communicate effectively with people from other disciplines). Early exposure to undergraduate research has been shown to increase a sense of belonging that is often missing for community college students, which leads to increased retention, success and persistence. It also provides additional opportunities for career exploration, and more access for women entering STEM fields, and provides students with marketable skills for their resume or their four-year university application.

As community colleges and our neighboring universities look for strategies to partner and bridge gaps for our students, it’s important for us to understand that our Durham Tech students studying undergraduate research today could very well be the next Duke doctor asking me to participate in the next innovative research study.

About the Author

Susan Paris
is vice president of student learning and instruction services at Durham Technical Community College in North Carolina.