Undergraduate Research at Community Colleges

A Model of Interdisciplinary Undergraduate Research Experiences at a Community College

Kalyn Shea Owens, Chemistry Faculty and Ann J. Murkowski, Biology Faculty

North Seattle Community College

In response to the clear need for authentic, engaging research experiences for undergraduates early in their academic careers, North Seattle Community College (NSCC) has designed and implemented a model that provides rich interdisciplinary research experiences for its students. Conducting student-centered research in the unique setting of a community college has provided both unexpected challenges and rewards, and the experience clearly illustrates the importance of strong institutional support and rich collaborations between both faculty members and outside experts.


At North Seattle Community College (NSCC), we are in our third year of creating powerful, embedded, basic research experiences for our first- and second-year science students. We have embarked on this effort to address several critical areas of concern among science faculty members at community colleges: recruiting and retaining more science majors, providing meaningful and accessible learning experiences for a diverse student population, and providing opportunities for pre-teachers to engage in learning experiences that reflect current philosophies in the teaching and learning arena. We also have inadvertently discovered that the creation and implementation of these programs can provide a powerful opportunity for a community of faculty members and students to come together and advance their understanding of science, teaching, and learning.

Students who enter college with the intent of pursuing a science major often change their minds, citing disinterest during introductory courses as their primary reason (Seymour & Hewitt, 1997). In addition to difficulties in retaining science majors, preservice K-12 teachers often take only freshman- and sophomore-level science courses. Thus it follows that K-12 science education cannot be improved until 100- and 200- level science courses at colleges are restructured (NRC, 1996). This is particularly important at community colleges, where the education of many of our future scientists and K-12 teachers begins. In fact, 44 percent of all recent STEM graduates nationwide have attended a community college (Kincaid, et al, 2007).

Participation in undergraduate research has been linked to greater gains in learning, increased retention, greater participation in campus activities, and integration into the culture and profession of the discipline. These research experiences also foster interaction between students and faculty and strengthen peer groups, both of which have been shown to positively affect cognitive and behavioral development (Astin, 1993). Thus, engaging students in a meaningful research experience early in their academic careers can have lasting implications for both initial student success and long-term development of a community of innovative, enthusiastic teachers and scientists. The community college setting, where faculty members are not expected to conduct research and where financial support for research is limited, creates an opportunity to rethink the role of undergraduate research in teaching and learning. This represents a fundamental paradigm shift in which the student’s research is no longer a piece of some larger question or study; the student experience is itself the final outcome. This liberating shift in thinking allows us to focus on creating meaningful experiences for our students that will empower and inspire them as they move forward in their science education.

Our setting also provides unique challenges, as there are no ongoing research projects for our students to simply “plug into.” Thus, the research questions themselves can and must be deliberately designed for the benefit of student learning. As our undergraduate research experience is closely tied to an interdisciplinary science program that integrates chemistry and biology, we want to engage our students in research questions that require them to incorporate critical concepts from both disciplines and to engage them in real-world problems. Our initial theme, described in more detail below, was the carbon cycle, a complex system requiring an understanding of both critical biological and chemical concepts. In addition to the need to move fluidly between disciplines, this theme also forced our students to think about research on both global and local scales.

Adapting global research to a local scale is attractive in multiple ways. It allows students to see immediate connections between their work and the larger body of knowledge; they thus begin to see themselves as contributing members of a scientific community. Situating the research experience in the students’ immediate environment is logistically much simpler, and, more importantly, it helps them connect classroom theory to local contexts. As many local environments have not been heavily studied, a local emphasis also provides the opportunity for students to do authentic, basic research and contribute to the body of knowledge on carbon cycling.

As neither of us had extensively studied the carbon cycle, we sought an outside collaborator with recent research experience in this area. We were fortunate to quickly partner with a graduate student, Sonya Remington, at a nearby research university. The collaboration greatly contributed to the design of the research experience and also added to the interdisciplinary nature of our program. Initially borrowing, and eventually purchasing, a single critical instrument allowed us to generate large amounts of data from a nearby, unstudied wetland. Thus, our students were able to generate novel data that contributed to the body of knowledge on carbon cycling while working closely with both their faculty members and an expert in the field. As we expand our collaborative model, this use of outside experts with an interest in fostering rich educational experiences continues to play a pivotal role.

In the sections that follow, we provide a more detailed account of our model for embedding undergraduate research experiences early in the academic careers of the diverse set of students who start their development as teachers, scientists, and citizens at community colleges. We believe this model provides a powerful means to engage our students and spark their interest in science early. In addition, it fosters the critical thinking skills and close bonds with peers and faculty members that facilitate success in future academic pursuits.