Undergraduate Research at Community Colleges

Context, Implications, and Recommendations

Nancy Hensel

Executive Officer, Council on Undergraduate Research


Scientific progress is the hallmark of a dynamic society, and the United States leads the world in scientific discoveries. Recently, however, the U. S. Congress, the National Academies of Science, the Business Roundtable and other organizations (Business Roundtable, 2005; National Academies of Science, 2007; America Competes, 2007) have expressed serious concerns about the ability of the American scientific community to retain its world leadership role in innovation and technological development. An important aspect of scientific progress is the education of future scientists. American universities have seen a decline in the number of American-born science graduates at the same time that these universities are experiencing a decline in admissions of foreign students (National Academies of Science, 2007). Recent reports have called for increased support for science education at the K-12, baccalaureate, and graduate levels (National Academies of Science, 2007). Improvements in science curricula, particularly changes that engage students in the process of research and discovery, have become a focal point for attracting more students into science. Undergraduate research is a significant strategy for improving undergraduate science education.

While undergraduate research has been a part of undergraduate education since at least the time of Isaac Newton, it has only been in recent years that undergraduate research has become a movement (Blanton, 2008). The Council on Undergraduate Research (CUR) began in1978 with a small group of chemists from private liberalarts colleges who believed that faculty members at such colleges could engage in substantive research and, further, that they could involve students in such research. Since that time CUR has expanded to include all disciplines and all baccalaureate institutions in its efforts to foster undergraduate research as a powerful learning paradigm. It is only recently, however, that CUR has become involved in working with community colleges. As Hewlett points out in chapter two, community colleges must be included in efforts to reform science education. Community colleges prepare students who will transfer to four-year colleges and technicians who will become a part of research efforts. Further, they play a significant role in the preparation of underrepresented groups in science. CUR recognized the significant role that community colleges play in the preparation of future scientists and technicians when it suggested a partnership with the National Council on Instructional Administrators and submitted a proposal to explore undergraduate research at community colleges to the National Science Foundation.

Community colleges have long recognized the importance of mentoring students and have a history of success in educating underrepresented students, as well as underprepared students, for successful scientific careers. Community colleges play an important role in workforce development in their states and local communities. Industry frequently looks to community colleges to provide an educated and technologically up-to-date workforce. What has not been a part of the community college mission is research and the creation of new knowledge. Incorporating research into the traditional teaching mission of the community college is a relatively new and, to some, a controversial expansion of the mission. A recent view of community college faculty members suggests they can be “agents of knowledge dissemination and participants in a socially and personally transformative process, and as workers, facilitators of postindustrial production (p.133,Levin, Kater, Wagoner, 2006).” If faculty members are to achieve this new vision of their role, they will surely need to incorporate undergraduate research into the curriculum and their teaching. The authors included in this monograph have shown how they have been able to successfully become part of the process of knowledge development and dissemination on their campuses. Each author has demonstrated that engaging students in authentic research is in fact an enhancement of the teaching and learning process.

Participants in the regional conversations pointed out that the definition of undergraduate research and the ways in which campuses incorporate undergraduate research differ widely. All participants seemed to agree that teaching is research and that research can be effectively built into the community college curriculum and teaching mission.

Finger Lakes Community College has addressed the teaching versus research controversy head on. Faculty members have experimented with ways to deeply embed undergraduate research into the curriculum while also engaging students in authentic primary research. James Hewlett, his colleagues, and students are well on their way to developing a sustainable undergraduate research program at a community college. They are also beginning to share what they have learned with faculty members from other community colleges.

Kalyn Owens and Ann Murkowski at North Seattle Community College have engaged students in interdisciplinary basic research by incorporating research into coursework. To accomplish their goals, they also involved experts beyond their own campus community. Owens and Murkowski discussed the challenges of conducting research at a community college, but they also found that the significant gains in student learning were deeply satisfying to the faculty.

Redlands Community College (RCC) provides excellent examples of applied research and the role such research can play in the economic development of a state. RCC has developed a partnership with a corporation for agricultural research that assists both regional agriculture and the company’s product development. Redlands has also done work in developing viticulture and enology programs that have led to an emerging Oklahoma wine industry, and many of RCC’s students have developed their own wineries and businesses.

Southwestern College, through its partnership with Ondax, Inc., is engaged in basic research that may have far reaching benefits. The explorations of David Brown and his students in the fabrication of nano-structures within materials that can be used to control and manipulate the propagation of light, could lead to replacing electricity with light in applications that are typically done with silicon chips and other semiconductor materials. Southwestern College also provides examples of partnerships with other colleges and industry.