Sharing ideas on expanding student research experiences

Preparing for the poster session during the Community College Undergraduate Research Eexperience Summit last November. (Photo: AACC)

It didn’t take long for participants of a summit last fall focused on developing more research opportunities for community college students to start mulling how they could not only keep the momentum going, but to grow it.

Jared Ashcroft, a chemistry professor at Pasadena City College in California, organized a series of bimonthly online meetings with summit participants and others interested in undergraduates research experiences (UREs) to share information about effective URE practices. He said he hopes to develop a community of practice around UREs. 

“To me, it’s more of a national conversation — like how do we support each other at community colleges? How can we maybe leverage different (undergraduate research) programs that are really successful?” Ashcroft said. 

Patricia Turner, dean of science, engineering and technology at Howard Community College in Maryland, said that she submitted a proposal for a session about UREs at the upcoming Maryland community college conference. She hopes that the session will lead to a core group with representatives of every Maryland community college collaborating to expand the use of UREs. 

“There is a lot of energy around this right now,” she said. 

Ashcroft’s and Truner’s efforts were highlighted in a new report that summarizes the proceedings of the Community College URE Summit held last November. The American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) convened the meeting with support from the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Advanced Technological Education program. 

Devoun Stewart, assistant professor of chemistry at Sacramento City College in California, reported that he had started to develop course-based undergraduate research experiences for a general chemistry course. The college also plans to submit an S-STEM grant proposal to NSF. The S-STEM program was one of several URE funding opportunities shared during the summit. 

Related article: Diving into student research experiences

Darren Mattone, a biology professor at Muskegon Community College in Michigan, said that he wants to improve coordination of research at the college so that various research efforts could develop a common marketing message. He said that the summit prompted him to take a different route.

“I applied for a sabbatical for fall 2020 to develop a proposal for a research-based honors college/program that spans all disciplines,” he said. “I felt that this honors approach would foster more interdisciplinary collaboration and research between faculty and students, and build on what others are already doing. This will then lead to the college-wide Scholars’ Day I’ve envisioned for years, in addition to the marketing of what we as faculty do.” 

Defining UREs

The summit steering committee noted that it is common to think of UREs as primarily lab- or course-based. That’s why it expanded that definition: UREs use the scientific method and/or the engineering design process to promote student learning by investigating a problem where the solution is unknown to students or faculty. UREs provide students with essential workplace and life-long learning skills such as collaboration, problem-solving, critical thinking, creative thinking, and communication.

Examples of UREs discussed in the context of the summit included: 

  • course-based research
  • mentored research as part of a larger project, such as REUs (another NSF-funded program focused on creating research sites for two-year and four-year students)
  • student-centered research, such as independent studies and honors projects
  • employer-based research, such as internships, co-ops and apprenticeships
  • STEM design challenges and competitions

Key steps to URE success

Providing more research experiences for community college students can benefit not only students but also bolster the value of STEM workforce development programs, according to the summit summary. The report aims to raise awareness of innovative UREs at community colleges and to highlight how UREs build STEM career skills, improve student retention and completion, and help students succeed in their careers.

Summit participants identified the top factors in the success of all types of UREs. Their alignment with the college’s strategic plan and the support they receive from college administrators such as department chair, dean, vice president, president and college trustees were especially important.

The report highlights key elements in scaling up and sustaining UREs, developing and retaining URE partnerships, ensuring equitable access to such programs, and measuring the impact of UREs.

Recommendations to scale and sustain UREs include:

  • Develop inclusive cultures that engage the community in discussions and plans for UREs, which should align with the priorities in institutions’ missions, vision statements and strategic plans.
  • Provide incentives to URE stakeholders — faculty, students, administrators, staff, industry partners and others — with awards and public recognition.
  • Compensate faculty for time spent mentoring students doing research and providing opportunities for more students to participate in UREs as part of their teaching loads.
  • Expand and sustain funding for UREs at community colleges.
  • Demonstrate the benefits of UREs by sharing quantitative data from program assessments and student outcomes, as well as qualitative data from student success stories and alumni testimonials.
  • Develop collaborations with many groups, including student organizations, faculty, higher education institutions, businesses, research institutions, government agencies and more.
  • Tailor UREs to the job market and local employers’ needs and their willingness to offer internships, apprenticeships and participation in competitions.

To sustain partnerships for UREs:

  • Engage partners intentionally with frequent communication and public recognition.
  • Facilitate efforts to build and nurture relationships with partners.
  • Develop connections with local four-year colleges and industry to establish pathways for students as they move beyond UREs.
  • Establish a URE partnership coordinator position.
  • Designate URE support staff among grant writers, financial office staff, marketing team and institutional planners.
  • Give faculty release time to implement and manage UREs.
  • Build staff capacity and plan for leadership transitions within the URE program and the coalition that supports it.

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