Jared Ashcroft was so excited about the Community College Undergraduate Research Experience (URE) Summit that he attended in November, that he has set up a Zoom meeting on January 8 to continue the conversations about expanding research opportunities for community college students.
It is open to anyone interested in the topic. Ashcroft says that whether three or 100 people attend, he hopes the meeting will lead to other conversations and, perhaps eventually, other in-person meetings.
“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 was one of a dozen educators affiliated with Advanced Technological Education projects and centers who participated in the URE Summit on November 20-22, 2019, in Washington, D.C. He is a chemistry professor at Pasadena City College where he and Veronica Jaramillo, an instructor of natural sciences, mentor the Early Career Undergraduate Research Experience (eCURE) program.
The American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) convened the summit of 130 thought leaders—community college and university educators, students and graduates, as well as representatives of government agencies and non-profit organizations—to examine the role of community colleges in building, implementing, and sustaining undergraduate research experiences in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education and workforce preparation. The summit was organized with support from the National Science Foundation’s Advanced Technological Education (NSF ATE) program.
Ellen M. Hause, program director for Academic and Students Affairs at AACC, said she is pleased that Ashcroft has initiated the follow-up discussion. AACC is publishing a proceedings report of the summit, which was intended to assist in broadening community college participation in UREs.
The summit planning committee defined UREs as activities that use the scientific method and/or the engineering design process to promote student learning by investigating a problem in which the solution is unknown to students or faculty. UREs include academic competitions such as the Community College Innovation Challenge that AACC will offer again with NSF support this year, cybersecurity hackathons, internships, course-embedded research projects, and faculty-mentored studies.
At the summit’s closing plenary, V. Celeste Carter, lead program director for the ATE program, encouraged community college educators to think about ways to include UREs in the proposals they submit to NSF for support to build the STEM technical workforce.
In a recent phone interview Ashcroft described the summit as one of the best conferences he had ever attended. While he has been deeply involved in leading student research initiatives in chemistry, nanotechnology, and other STEM fields, at the summit he learned about well-established UREs of which he was unaware. The summit was also “eye-opening” about the challenges that some community college faculty face when they try to start or expand UREs.
Ashcroft said his plan for follow-up Zoom meetings is based on the success of the Micro Nano Technology Special Interest Group, a collaboratory led Matt Pleil, principal investigator of the Support Center for Microsystems Education at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque that has evolved into a community of practice. Ashcroft plans to propose bimonthly Zoom meetings as a way for community college educators who are interested in building UREs to share best practices and resources.
“It’s really up to us to take what we did and not let it just fizzle out,” he said. Other summit participants agree.
In a follow-up email to Ashcroft’s invitation, Linnea Fletcher, executive director of InnovATEBIO National Biotech Education Center, shared that she is leading a group that is planning a regional meeting to look at using UREs in combination with service learning and industry internships.
Five other community college educators who are involved in ATE programs that utilize UREs responded to email queries requesting their insights about the Community College Undergraduate Research Experience Summit for the ATE Impacts Blog. They are
MATE Center Offers Multiple Undergraduate Research Experiences
The MATE Center offers at-sea internships, an international competition for remotely operated vehicles (ROVs), and SeaMATE, an enterprise that employs students to make kits for ROV competitions. All of these initiatives encourage students to apply marine technology lessons, critical thinking, and entrepreneurial skills to complete hands-on projects that prepare them for STEM careers.
What did you think of the Community College Undergraduate Research Experience Summit?
DS: I enjoyed the summit, and I think the most impactful part of it was having technical faculty interact with academic faculty who teach transfer courses. Technical faculty have been well-versed in workforce issues and all the skills and aptitudes required to place students immediately into the workplace. This perspective—i.e., aligning projects with workforce needs; assessing soft skills, technical skills along with discipline specific skills; working directly with employers; and using Department of Labor data/products such as Competency Models, O*NET and Labor Market Data—is something traditional UREs don't do. But I think they would be greatly enhanced if they adopted a more workforce-centric approach.
JZ: It was very forward-thinking to bring the broader community together to discuss UREs from the community college perspective. Community colleges have their own, unique set of challenges to implement, recruit, engage, and retain students in these experiences. It's important to talk through them and to learn from those who have worked through them.
What do you hope will come from it?
DS: I hope that this summit will lead to more collaboration between academic and technical faculty and the UREs will be more inclusive of technical students. For example, technical students can build tools for students conducting science projects. I hope we will do more of this at our college. Creating a [program] solicitation that requires this type of interaction will go a long way in making it happen.
JZ: I would like to see a set of best practices—examples of successes—along with examples of those that have failed. As we know, a lot can be learned from failure! I'm sure that you've heard and will hear this from others, but I would also like to see additional support (yes, funding opportunities!) to develop, support, and sustain UREs at the community-college level. I don't know what resources universities have available to them to support UREs, but I imagine that they have more than community colleges!
What is your advice to other community college educators who want to use competitions as research experiences?
DS: Since I have had technical REU [research experiences for undergraduates] grants for close to 20 years that place students directly into the workplace (via At-Sea Internships), I will answer the question about competitions and technical REUs together. Having students function as if they are "employees" of an organization, either by working alongside marine technicians at sea or responding to an RFP [request for proposals] in the ROV competition makes the difference. It is not just understanding the discipline or using tools/technology of that discipline. It is showing up prepared, on-time, communicating (to peers, supervisors and customers), teamwork, leadership, innovation and entrepreneurship, troubleshooting and resilience when everything goes wrong that makes the difference.
Competitions, if they are designed well, can do an excellent job of creating a realistic "work experience" and can be used on a resume just as a job can. Technology changes, applications change... it is hard to imagine what the workforce will look like in the future. If you are able to show someone how an organization works and how to be of value to an organization, you have created a life skill that will help keep them employed for a very long time. A well-designed competition will do just that.
JZ: Educators and institutions should determine which URE type is the best "fit" for them. If they decide that it's a competition, I would say to connect with other community colleges that already participate (competition practitioners can help to make an introduction) to learn more about how they make it work. Then don't be reluctant to "dive in" and give it a try. They will learn so much in the first year and come away discussing how to do things better/differently next year. I have witnessed this happen!
MATE ROV competitions are multi-faceted, but how would you summarize the power of competitions to help students learn and gain STEM workforce skills?
JZ: Competitions are a great motivator—they are the carrot at the end of the stick! Not only do they challenge students to apply their STEM knowledge and skills, they also present students with situations that require them to rise to the occasion as leaders and teammates. What I'm most struck by after 19 years of developing and managing the MATE ROV Competition is how these settings inspire and motivate students—competitions bring out students' resourcefulness, ability to adapt and evolve, think critically (and often quickly!), and problem solve. I'm also struck by the peer-to-peer mentoring that goes on when you bring the teams together, with students sharing ideas, learning from each other, and helping each other to work through technical and logistics issues. Seeing that interaction, being a part of the community-building, and knowing that this is helping prepare students for success in the workplace has been a most rewarding experience!
Del Mar College Uses Biotech Research Experiences to Help Students Gain Competitive Advantage
The biotechnology program that J. Robert Hatherill (JRH) and Daiyuan “Daisy” Zhang (DZ) lead at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas, has embedded innovative research projects such as phage and plant gene studies into the curriculum. Students share their research during poster sessions on campus and at professional societies’ conferences. Students are also encouraged to seek paid internships at national labs and with industry. All of these experiences are intended to help students succeed when they transfer to a baccalaureate program or enter the STEM workforce.
What did you think of the Community College Undergraduate Research Experience Summit?
JRH: I thought the summit made excellent progress on identifying the salient features necessary for success in UREs.
DZ: I thought the summit was successful.
What do you hope will come from it?
JRH: I really hope there will be follow-up sessions to include the administration of the same URE leading campuses.
DZ: A network with industry.
Your students have done exceptionally well in competitions and internships. What have you found is the most powerful aspect of these experiences?
JRH: UREs may promote a number of student outcomes, including student confidence and self-efficacy. An expanding body of literature utilizing surveys or interviews has confirmed students’ increased confidence in research abilities after undergraduate research experiences.
Undergraduate research experiences that facilitate students to take ownership of their research project have shown increased student retention or persistence. The URE model may be of particular importance in the two-year college setting, where most students have no opportunities for conducting undergraduate research. There is a scarcity of assessment information on the student outcomes of CURE [course-based undergraduate research experience] programs at two-year colleges.
We have conducted assessments of student outcomes and student participation in activities demonstrating engagement in science, such as presenting at scientific meetings, publishing in peer-reviewed publications, and winning presentation awards.
DZ: Their [students’] increased confidence level and other opportunities that came because of these experiences.
How would you advise other community college educators to plug their students into these opportunities?
JRH: It requires a very dedicated faculty team and support, from the chairperson to the president of the college.
DZ: Start with applying for a small grant, and pay the interns first with [that] grant.
Research Part Mt. SAC Program that Puts Students on STEM Teaching Path
The Mt. SAC STEM Teacher Preparation Program (STEM TP2) offers STEM majors the opportunity to cross-enroll in research-focused courses at the University of California, Irvine. In the first course students learn content delivery, pedagogy, classroom management, and conduct fieldwork. In the second course they learn research methodologies.
As a member of the steering committee, what did you think of the Community College Undergraduate Research Experience Summit and the many discussions that occurred there?
IN: The summit was extremely well organized and structured. It was great seeing the many conference-call discussions we had over nearly a year culminate into this well-organized product. The questions crafted for discussions were well-thought-out and inspired well-rounded discussions around the tables.
What do you hope will come from the summit?
IN: A comprehensive report summarizing the key summit findings, major challenges and obstacles faced based on the participants’ experiences and some recommendations on how to initiate and start a particular type of URE, on a small scale, at a two-year school. Some knowledge about how other two-year college faculty have been successful in starting such endeavors would also be great. Aggressive dissemination of the findings plus some form of professional development support should follow the report, if the goal is to encourage other two-year institutions to establish a form of UREs.
What have you found are the most powerful research experiences for students involved in the STEM TP2 program at Mt. SAC?
IN: We offered those research experiences in the form of an Introduction to Research Methods course so that students [who plan to become teachers] learn about the “process” of research followed up by doing a summer research at a partner four-year institution. I would say “confidence and ability to do research even this early on” was reflected as a major achievement in many of the students’ responses. They speak very highly of the two opportunities.