Brighter Outlook

By Loftus, Margaret | ASEE Prism, April 2012 | Go to article overview

Brighter Outlook


Loftus, Margaret, ASEE Prism


COMMUNITY COLLEGES FIND THAT FACULTY-STUDENT RESEARCH PROJECTS HELP SPOT AND DEVELOP STEM TALENT.

COMMUNITY COLLEGES ARENT 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 AfricartAmerican - 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 wouid 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.

ONE OF THE BEST TOOLS'

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. …

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