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Taking flight: colleges tap research to improve science instruction.


Back in 2003, a young biology instructor at Fingers Lakes Community College began having his students analyze the DNA of the local red-tailed hawks population, searching for indicators that distinguished males from females.

The research work was aimed at developing a better understanding of the sex-based migratory patterns of the raptors. It also would identify sex-based physical characteristics, allowing researchers charged with trapping and banding the birds to quickly identify the sex of the creatures.

For Professor James Hewlett, the idea was not so much to find scientific breakthroughs or to publish papers in peer-reviewed scientific journals, though he has no objection to that.

Rather, Hewlett's goal was to give his small group of biotechnology students a chance to learn science the way he did--through scientific research, with its trial and error, its learning by doing, its repetition. For Hewlett, standing in front of students and delivering a lecture just wasn't cutting it.


"I had been in grad school doing research before I came to the community college," he said. "To go from that into a culture where I was in the classroom for 20 hours a week was a hard change for me. I was missing out on what made me get interested in science in the first place."

"I think if you want to teach scientists, you have to get them involved in research. It has to be part of the toolbox."

Nearly eight years after that first class, Hewlett's red-tailed hawk research idea is reaching new heights. Last fall, the National Science Foundation gave Finger Lakes Community College and its Community College Undergraduate Research Initiative a $3.35 million grant to roll out a national model for incorporating research into community college biology courses.

The funding comes from the NSF's Transforming Undergraduate Education in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) program. The grant was a Type 3 award--the largest, most competitive and most selective the NSF offers. In 2011, Fingers Lakes was the sole recipient of a Type 3 grant under the STEM program. The goal of the grant program is to stimulate, disseminate and institutionalize innovative developments in STEM education.

By selecting a community college for such a prestigious grant, the NSF underscored what is becoming an article of faith in higher education: if the country is truly committed to increasing the supply of STEM graduates and developing skilled scientists, it needs to tap an heretofore overlooked pool of talent--community college students, who make up nearly half of the nation's entire undergraduate population.

Under the first year of the NSF grant, the CCURI will enlist 26 community colleges from around the country for three-day workshops on how to design, implement, and assess undergraduate research programs at their institutions. The workshops will be based on a model pioneered by Finger Lakes and implemented regionally on a smaller scale; students at the college have taken part in research projects ranging from bacterial transfer during massage therapy, to the genotyping of black bears, to studying an ancient shipwreck in the Lesser Antilles.

Taking Shape

Over the subsequent three years, the project will support the institutions as plans take shape on their respective campuses, providing for supplies, equipment, faculty, curriculum development and stipends for student research assistants.

"This project is creating and sustaining a national network of community colleges committed to bringing the undergraduate research experience into biology curriculum," the NSF said in awarding the grant. "The model is helping community colleges overcome the unique barriers that have prevented them from employing the power of the UR pedagogy in the education of approximately 45 percent of all U.S. undergraduates including underrepresented groups and students who are the first generation of their family to attend college. The results from the extensive evaluation plan is being widely disseminated and used to refine the model for integrating the UR experience at a community college."

The notion that research can have benefits for community college students is gaining acceptance around the country. At Miami Dade College, for example, the NSF-funded Biotechnology Research Learning Collaborative (BRLC) is creating a series of laboratory-based, industry-applicable, small-scale research projects appropriate for two-year college students. Faculty are testing the learning effectiveness of these research projects within college credit courses over a three-year period. BRLC personnel are compiling lab-based research projects and evaluation findings into a publication for college biotechnology instructors and lab managers.

At Southwestern College in California, chemistry professor David Brown makes research opportunities available to his students on an extra-curricular basis. With sophisticated analytical instruments he obtained with help from an NSF grant, his students specialize in molecular spectroscopy, examining the structures of molecules. They separate and isolate individual components from mixtures and measure the concentrations of specific substances in mixtures.

Brown said the research work in the laboratory nicely complements what he does in the classroom.

"The classroom is the 20,000-foot view, while the research and mentoring piece is the view from the ground," he said. "The research is a pedagogical tool and a means for students to explore his or her own ability and career path."

Hewlett said that he hopes the grant will cement the notion that community college students can benefit from undergraduate research experiences and should not be confined to larger, better-funded four-year schools. Research and inquiry-based instruction models have an inherent pedagogical value to students, fostering a deeper understanding of science principles and instilling an enthusiasm to explore science, he said.


In a paper he wrote for the Council on Undergraduate Research, Hewlett said community colleges have not always seen the value of undergraduate research.

"The challenge is getting a community of educators to see that the issue is not research or teaching, but the concept that research is teaching," he wrote. "Undergraduate research must be accepted by community colleges as a pedagogy and aligned with other widely accepted alternative teaching methodologies (such as collaborative learning, peer-led team learning, case studies, inquiry-based learning). Until this happens, research will always be seen by some community college faculty members and administrators as a scholarly activity with benefits that translate directly toward the field of study, with only limited capacity for extrapolation into the classroom."

Serious Barriers

Community colleges face other serious barriers in trying to infuse research into science classrooms. Chief among them are finding the time, space and money to launch a research program. Researchers at community colleges often have to share laboratory space with instructional labs, a less-than-ideal situation. Cash-strapped colleges might be reluctant to invest in a research laboratory and go where few institutions have gone before.

Identifying students with the talent, dedication and drive to handle research work is another challenge, since many community college students arrive on-campus ill-prepared for college-level work, but Brown believes it can be done.

"You have to choose the right kind of material," he said. "You don't feed a 2-month old baby a T-bone steak. It's the same with students. The key is to build on their prior experience. You can take that prior experience and put it in a formalized context."

Then there are the heavy teaching loads community college instructors typically carry. Brown, for example, spends up to 18 hours a week giving lectures and running instructional laboratories. Only the most committed instructor can find time outside those requirements to conduct research activities.

"People have to do this on their own dime and time," he said. "It can be beyond a full-time job. It's no surprise that not a lot of people are doing this."

But the payoff is rich, Brown said.

"One of the greatest and most fulfilling things for me is to work shoulder-to-shoulder with students directing undergraduate research," he said. "I get to see a lot of 'aha' moments."

Hewlett hopes that the model FLCC has developed and will share through the NPR grant will help colleges clear such hurdles. He believes community colleges, in their drive to produce more STEM graduates, are ready to embrace research as a part of science curriculum. Brown believes it's a matter of necessity.

"The old paradigm doesn't work, in my opinion," he said. "Whatever we've been doing for the past 75 years isn't working with global competition. Higher education has not kept up with the changes that fuel our economy. Tapping into the traditional sources has not met the demand. Community colleges are an untapped mine of talent that can help meet the demand."
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Author:Bradley, Paul
Publication:Community College Week
Date:Mar 5, 2012
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