Community colleges aren’t known as crucibles of medical innovation. Then there’s Itasca Community College in Grand Rapids, Minn., and a gadget students there developed called the Cardiac Sound Reproduction Apparatus for Improved Stethoscope Testing. It’s a smart stethoscope, able to tell a healthy heart from a diseased one and measure and record 19 different defects that can be detected by sound.
Though seldom performed at community colleges and still a rarity in their engineering departments, this kind of research is starting to catch on as educators and the government look to community colleges to assume a larger role in building a bigger and more diverse workforce in the science, technology, engineering, and math fields.
Community colleges are an obvious place to turn for future STEM professionals. Already, some 46 percent of recent science and engineering graduates attended community colleges at some point. Low tuition is a major draw. The average cost to a student of a two-year public college is $12,000, compared with nearly $20,000 at a public four-year college and $35,000 at a private, nonprofit four-year college, according to the latest tally by the National Center for Education Statistics. More than 60 percent of two-year students are women and 27 percent African-American -- both of whom are traditionally underrepresented in most STEM fields, particularly in engineering disciplines.
Active learning, such as engaging in research, has shown results both in knowledge gained and student persistence in STEM. Research can reveal “nuggets of talent” in STEM, says David Brown, a chemistry professor who conducts research with his students at the two-year Southwestern College in Chula Vista, Calif. “We’re able to catch kids that may have fallen through the cracks otherwise.”
Liz Snyder turned out to be one of those “nuggets.” She wanted a career in science but wasn’t sure exactly how that would take shape until she found herself in the lab researching the genetic sequencing of red-tail hawks in a second-year biotechnology program at Finger Lakes Community College (FLCC) in Canandaigua, N.Y. “It helped me figure out that this is what I really want to do,” says Snyder, whose top-notch grades won her an academic scholarship to finish her B.S. degree at Rochester Institute of Technology. She is now pursuing a master’s in microbiology at SUNY Brockport.
Recently, the National Science Foundation has encouraged community college research. In 2010, NSF funded a series of workshops run by the Council on Undergraduate Research (CUR) to train two-year college faculty on how to incorporate research into their curricula. And last fall, the agency funded Snyder’s mentor, James Hewlett, the director of biotechnology at FLCC, to help community colleges develop original research programs. “Using research to teach is one of the best tools available,” Hewlett says, recalling his own student days, assisting a biology professor in a lab. The experience prompted him to switch from pre-med to biology. “It turns out having students actually do science and engineering helps them learn better.”
Research engages students in a way that PowerPoint presentations don’t, encouraging more of them to stay in college, says Nancy Hensel, former CUR executive officer and principal investigator for the NSF workshops. “It’s important that they have really good science courses in their first two years. Otherwise they could become discouraged. Undergraduate research has been shown to help them stay in their majors and complete their degree.”
Brown has found that students who have had research experiences are able to grasp concepts better than those who haven’t. “They’re able to synthesize different classes, like calculus and chemistry. When you do research, you’re able to see connections in your coursework. You get the big picture.”
But while 1 in 5 undergraduate students at four-year colleges reports conducting original research with faculty, such opportunities are relatively scarce at the community college level. A big impediment is time pressure. Community college faculty generally carry a much heavier teaching load than their colleagues at four-year schools. While professors at top-tier universities can use teaching assistants or get reduced teaching loads while they’re directing research, Brown is in front of a classroom 15 hours a week, not counting lab courses. Any research conducted with students is above and beyond his contractual load. Time can be an obstacle for students, too. More than half attend school part time, and a research project may extend beyond their two-year program.
To conduct research at community colleges, “you have to be very resourceful,” says Bart Johnson, an engineering instructor and program coordinator at Itasca Community College. “Generally, you’re expected to teach 30 credits. Doing research is not recognized formally, and finding research space is another hurdle.” A research culture has never taken hold, he says. Yet community colleges claim one advantage over large research universities: flexibility. “If a faculty member has an entrepreneurial spirit in research, there’s no hierarchy to work through like there is in four-year schools,” says Johnson. “I talk directly to the provost. That’s been the key to our success.”
Itasca physics and engineering instructor Ron Ulseth and his students got over the various hurdles with help from Glenn Nordehn, an adjunct faculty member at the University of Minnesota Medical School, Duluth campus, and the university’s department of electrical and computer engineering. The Blandin Foundation of Grand Rapids, Minn., provided financial help. The collaboration not only produced the Cardiac Sound Reproduction device, for which a patent is being sought; it also inspired student Andrew McNally to pursue graduate studies in biomedical engineering.
In a second Itasca project, students and faculty are working on cost-effective procurement and delivery of woody biomass – ground wood waste from the lumber industry — to use as a source for heating fuel. Again, they looked outside for support. Some $60,000 for equipment and student wages came from the Forestry Research Institute of Sweden, the Swedish Bioenergy Association, and the Biobusiness Alliance of Minnesota.
So far, much of the NSF funding for community college research has been geared toward natural sciences, but the prospects for engineering seem promising. Hewlett says that while his grant is restricted to natural sciences, one of his goals is to incorporate interdisciplinary projects. At Oakton Community College in Des Plaines, Ill., engineering students have pushed for their own projects. The school’s grants have expired, but math professor Gloria Liu says the school is trying to support small-scale projects on its own, such as developing a baseball scoreboard for the school using wind power. “We’re struggling with materials and finding projects that require minimal costs, but we all know this is valuable.”
Both FLCC and Southwestern College report success collaborating with industry, with FLCC being able to turn $24,000 from NSF into more than $1 million in outside support.
Brown and his students at Southwestern College have partnered with Ondax Incorporated, a California firm that designs and manufactures holographic optical filters, to conduct research on the fabrication and characterization of proprietary glass materials with properties that have applications in laser-based systems. The project is funded by a special NSF program that connects small business with community college research teams. The collaboration is a bonus all around, says Brown. “Students involved get to learn science and technology, but they also get to learn something about entrepreneurship,” he says. “We sit down with the company leaders, and the students are right there. That’s really valuable.”
Regardless of its applications, undergraduate research is valuable in its own right, argues Hensel. “If we want students to be risk takers, they have to feel comfortable with ambiguity, so it’s important to educate them early to develop that kind of passion,” she says. “If they don’t make an original discovery, they are still more likely to go on to grad school and possibly make an original contribution later.”
Indeed, FLCC’s Hewlett has found that 62 percent of his students who were involved in research projects transferred to a four-year STEM program, up from 51 percent of those who didn’t participate. Even more impressive, 10 percent of those on his research teams applied to a STEM graduate program, more than double the number of non-research students.
Hewlett maintains that research is as critical to budding scientists as the hands-on experience inherent in FLCC programs such as nursing and training of music recording technicians. “Almost all of them have field experiences; nursing students go into the hospitals, and music recording tech students go into the studio. So if we have students walk in the door and say they want to be scientists, how can we not engage them in those experiences? We put them through PowerPoint hell and lecture them and expect them to come out scientists, and they don’t. We’re preparing students for their career, too. We have to do it. It’s a no-brainer.”
Margaret Loftus is a freelance writer based in Charleston, S.C.