Undergraduate Research at Community Colleges


George R. Boggs

President and CEO, American Association of Community Colleges

Those who study American higher education often differentiate its largest sector, community colleges, from other colleges and universities, by defining them as teaching (and more recently learning) institutions. Community colleges exist to provide educational and training opportunities to students and to respond to the educational and workforce needs of local communities. They are not seen as institutions where faculty members and students are engaged in scholarly research and the production of knowledge. Adding to the limitations of the perceived mission of community colleges is the fact that their faculty members have the highest teaching loads in all of higher education and there are no graduate (and usually no upper-division undergraduate) students enrolled who could serve as teaching assistants. And the students who are enrolled are mostly part-time and often transient.

However, the authors of Undergraduate Research in Community Colleges point out that undergraduate research does occur in innovative community colleges, and that it has significant value to students and faculty members. The authors note "research is teaching." I would add that research is also learning, and it may be one of the most effective ways to engage students in learning a discipline. If one considers what we know about student learning, undergraduate research can play an important rol in increasing both student interest and success. We know that students build upon what they already know (or think they know).Aresearch project provides an opportunity to challenge or build upon beliefs and knowledge. We know that engagement in the discipline is important to student persistence and success. What better way to engage students than to involve them in a research project?

We know that students are more successful if they have greater contact with faculty members and other students. Research projects require students to have frequent interactions with faculty mentors, and projects usually involve teams of students. We know that students who are taught critical-thinking skills are those who are most successful, not only in college but also in life beyond college. Involvement in a research project almost forces students to think critically about a discipline. We know that engaging students in "real world" problems increases their motivation to learn. There can hardly be a better way to engage students in contemporary ‘‘real world’’ problems than by involving them in research projects.

While research is teaching for the faculty and learning for the students, it is also a motivator and a form of professional development for faculty members and potentially a source of recognition for the institution. The very best faculty members find ways to engage or re-engage in their disciplines. Leading students in a research project clearly is an effective way to remain engaged in a discipline. In his chapter, David Brown indicates that undergraduate research has been "one of the most fulfilling professional activities possible" for him. In spite of the obstacles posed by lack of research funding and high teaching loads, this publication demonstrates that undergraduate research is being conducted in community colleges across the nation. I encourage college leaders to find ways to support the energetic faculty members who want to use research as a way to promote student learning. The reasons for supporting undergraduate research include a need to increase the number of students (especially minority students) majoring in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields; the need to promote better understanding of STEM fields; the need to improve student engagement and persistence in college; the need to assist people in becoming better consumers of research; the need to develop better understanding of the scientific method and research processes; and the potential for institutional recognition.

I appreciate the contributions of the authors in making Undergraduate Research in Community Colleges such an important resource for community college faculty members and administrators.