Report Suggests Ways to Expand Undergraduate Research Experiences; Supplemental ATE Grants Available

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The proceedings report from the Community College Undergraduate Research Experience Summit is now available on the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) website. The report contains recommendations for scaling and sustaining undergraduate research experiences (UREs) at two-year colleges, developing partnerships for UREs, ensuring equitable access to UREs in STEM, and measuring the impact of UREs.

The summit’s planning committee defined UREs as experiences that 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. Examples of UREs currently offered by community colleges include course-based research, internships, STEM design challenges, independent studies, honor projects, competitions that blend technical academic and technical skills, and mentored research that is part of a larger project.

The recommendations were developed during facilitated small group discussions and a deliberative process that involved the 120 thought leaders in attendance at the summit, which was convened by AACC with support from the National Science Foundation’s Advanced Technological Education (ATE) program on November 20 to 22, 2019, in Washington, D.C.

In March 2020, ATE announced new funding for novel UREs developed by principal investigators of active ATE grants.  Proposals for supplemental funding are due May 15.

The report also features the stories of six individuals whose research experiences as community college students profoundly influenced their STEM career paths.   

Community College Undergraduate Research Experience Summit Report Cover

Community College Undergraduate Research Experience Summit Report Cover

At the summit Reginald King, Danial Nasr Azadani, Alexa Bennett, and Paula Kirya praised community college UREs.

At the summit Reginald King, Danial Nasr Azadani, Alexa Bennett, and Paula Kirya praised community college UREs.

Alexa Bennett, a Ph.D. student in the bioinformatics data science program at the University of Delaware, traces her academic and career success to Delaware Technical Community College. Professor Virginia Balke invited her biology students to join in the BioChem Club’s authentic research projects. Then she encouraged the student researchers to present their findings at colloquia offered by the Community College Undergraduate Research Initiative (CCURI). CCURI is a network of more than 120 two-year colleges based at Finger Lakes Community College in New York and has received numerous NSF grants since 2005.

“Attending a poster session or symposium, or particularly the CCURI workshops … you kind of get this boost of inspiration and energy out of it,” Bennett said. The holistic thinking skills she gained during poster sessions are helping her current research, which involves guiding elementary and secondary school students to collect soil, water, and sediment samples for her and other researchers to analyze.

“I’m so happy to have had that opportunity as an undergrad—particularly as an undergrad at a community college—to put together a poster and learn from those mistakes early, as opposed to graduate school,” Bennett said.

Paula Kirya, a bioengineering student at Pasadena City College, is glad that she followed up on Chemistry Professor Jared Ashcroft’s suggestions to do research at the California campus and then apply for a summer internship at Penn State University. During her internship in Pennsylvania she discovered how much she likes the minuscule details of laboratory research. “Even though I’m just watching, literally, bacteria grow—even though it’s just that—I find it exciting,” she said, explaining she hopes to do research for the rest of her life.

At the summit Kirya stressed the importance of community college educators publicizing research opportunities in their classes and then encouraging students during one-on-one conversations. Kirya shared that she had to persuade her parents that conducting research would not derail their plans for her to earn associate and bachelor’s degrees quickly. She said her parents told her: “You can’t play around. You can’t mess around. You can’t dabble in research, if it’s not going to take you somewhere.”

Reginald King, an engineer who earned three associate degrees from Copiah-Lincoln Community College in Mississippi, explained that he discovered how much he likes mechanical design while he and teammates built remotely operated vehicles (ROV) for the international ROV competitions organized by the Marine Advanced Technology Education Center, which is located at Monterey Peninsula College in California.

King said his ROV team experience helped him obtain a co-op position with Toyota Manufacturing Mississippi while he worked on his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering at Mississippi State University. Prior to his university graduation in December 2019 King took a job as a full-time design engineer at Hol-Mac Corporation. Interviewers there told him they were impressed by the skills he gained during the ROV competitions and had listed on his LinkedIn page.

Nathan Shih, a junior majoring in electrical engineering at the University of Washington, credits the STEM to Stern program at Bellevue College with leading him to three internships that made it possible for to explore bioengineering and renewable energy careers. The collaborative, hands-on learning environment at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado—his second internship site—taught Shih that he likes blending engineering with work outdoors. 

“It gave me a better understanding of the renewable energy field, but also gave me a better understanding of my interests and future career paths,” he said, while expressing the hope that more community colleges will offer internships. “Trying new things is a great opportunity to grow as a person, but also be exposed to new ideas and different people. I’ve found that aspect of research to be very interesting and intellectually stimulating.”

Kristen Pisarcik was a student at Delaware Technical Community College (DTCC) when she learned to modify genetic codes using CRISPR during a URE at the Gene Editing Institute. (CRISPR stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeat, a biotech lab technique.)  

After she graduated from DTCC, Pisarcik was hired by the institute to test a new product using CRISPR.   

Now pursuing a bachelor’s degree at the University of Delaware, Pisarcik is employed as a science educator for Technician Training in Gene Editing, an ATE project (Award 1700660) led by DTCC faculty. In this role she is instructing teachers to use the gene-editing protocols developed by the institute.

“The amount of opportunity that it [undergraduate research] opens you up to is amazing and completely unknown. When I started, I had no idea I even wanted to potentially do gene editing let alone in a slightly more educational setting. But it kind of directed me that way, and I love it,” she said.

Danial Nasr Azadani, who completed an associate degree from Del Mar College and Texas A&M University Corpus Christi in 2019, attributes the authentic research that J. Robert Hatherhill incorporated in biology classes to his participation in more than 20 conferences, workshops, and competitions, and authorship of scientific papers.

“That was among the top greatest things that have ever happened in my life—just going to a community college and getting the opportunity to do undergraduate research,” he said.

Nasr Azadani considers the Community College Innovation Challenge the most “phenomenal” of his undergraduate research experiences. Not only did the Del Mar College team win the 2017 competition with a product based on their biology course research, but Nasr Azadani is using the lessons he learned from experts at CCIC’s boot camp to start a business.

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Last Edited: April 12th at 7:30am by Madeline Patton

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