Undergraduate Research at Community Colleges

Engaging Undergraduates in Chemical Research at Southwestern College

David R. Brown

Professor of Chemistry Southwestern College, Chula Vista, CA


Southwestern College (SWC), one of the 110 California community colleges, represents the only institution of higher education in south San Diego County and enrolls approximately 19,000 students. SWC is a minority-serving institution with a student demographic that includes 60 percent Hispanic, 13 percent Filipino, and 5 percent African-American students. It sits in a bi-national and bi-cultural region, eight miles from the international border with Mexico.

The Department of Chemistry at SWC currently employs four full-time faculty members and, depending on staffing needs, between six and 10 part-time faculty members. The department serves approximately 500 students across the chemistry curriculum each semester. Students in the Department of Chemistry at SWC have been offered opportunities to engage in undergraduate research since early 1999, shortly after the author joined the full-time faculty.

As do many two-year college students, through internships and fellowships SWC students engage in research activities at four-year institutions and corporate and government laboratories. Efforts to send SWC students to these laboratories have been supported through federal funds from the National Science Foundation (NSF) Advanced Technological Education (ATE) program and the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Talent Expansion Program (STEP), as well as the National Institutes of Health’s Bridges to the Future program. Further, since 2006 annual donations totaling $120,000 from the Dr. David W. Lipp Foundation have supported opportunities for SWC student scholars to engage in research activities; the donations also have provided scholarships and contributed to a growing endowment.

While these off-campus research experiences are valuable, can be quite meaningful, and will always be an important part of the campus culture, I will focus here on resident undergraduate research, undertaken on the SWC campus. Students who engage in research conducted on-site at SWC are provided an experience that is typically of significantly greater depth than their counterparts who participate in offcampus opportunities. On-campus research projects at SWC are ongoing, year-round. While six to eight weeks of summer undergraduate research off campus are surely valuable and enriching, when the students return to SWC in the fall semester, their connection to a research mentor is significantly reduced or possibly even terminated.

Undergraduate research has an inherently high pedagogical value and serves to enrich the environment of an institution regardless of the academic setting in which it is undertaken. It is possible that undergraduate research may provide a more meaningful experience at a community college, where it is not a part of the historical culture of the institution and where many of the students are from lower socio-economic backgrounds and often are the first in their families to attend a postsecondary institution. Undergraduate research has unquestionably had a significant transformative impact on the SWC students who have been able to participate. These experiences ultimately have prepared them better for transfer to four-year institutions, including eventual graduate studies. They also have made them stronger applicants for scholarships and internships and have increased their ability to secure employment in local industries.


Two primary factors facilitated the initiation of resident undergraduate research activities in chemistry at SWC. They were the addition of a faculty member (the author) who had an interest in directing undergraduate research and the receipt of a National Science Foundation (NSF) award (DUE #9850951) that provided for the acquisition of an extensive collection of analytical instruments. The equipment acquired through the NSF grant includes Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR), Fourier Transform Infrared (FTIR), Ultraviolet-Visible (UV-Vis) spectrometers and Gas Chromatography/Mass Spectrometry (GC/MS) and High Performance Liquid Chromatography (HPLC) systems. The department has since added an Electron Paramagnetic Resonance (EPR) spectrometer to the assortment of analytical and spectroscopic instruments. These various instruments permit students to obtain information pertaining to the structures of molecules, separate and isolate individual components from mixtures, and measure the concentrations of specific substances in mixtures.

The instrumentation obtained with the funds from the NSF grant was primarily intended for use in laboratory courses across the curriculum, and it is indeed used in General Chemistry, Organic Chemistry, and Analytical Chemistry. However, in addition to strengthening the content of the formal teaching curriculum, possessing a wide-ranging assortment of instruments opened the door to establishing a research program at SWC.

Researchers at SWC primarily engage in basic research, with a strong emphasis on molecular spectroscopy as applied to materials characterization. The types of systems investigated have varied widely and have fit well with the interests of students, who have a similarly wide range of educational and career goals. Systems investigated have ranged from human cells that have been genetically engineered to tolerate desiccation, to luminescent rare-earth oxide powders, to samples of silica-based glass doped with nano-clusters of differing index of refraction that function as volume holographic gratings (VHGs).