Initial Publication Date: June 14, 2016

Solutions to Common Challenges

Two-year colleges vary widely across the country and each one has different strengths and challenges when it comes to students' access to research experiences. But there are some common challenges the many faculty face and anyone doing this work will probably recognize many of them. It can be very empowering to know that other faculty are facing similar issues and have found solutions.


It is no surprise that faculty and student time is at a premium at many 2YCs. 2YC students are more likely to be non-traditional and face work or family pressures on their time than those at four-year institutions; tenured geoscience faculty at 2YCs teach full loads and are more likely to be "one-of-a-kind" on campus. There are creative ways to do more research with students that don't dramatically increase anyone's time commitment.

  • Karen Kortz has designed opportunities for students to give each other peer feedback and mentoring into her in-class research projects at the Community College of Rhode Island.
  • Shelley Jaye worked with her dean at Northern Virginia Community College to arrange her teaching load into two long days so that she could devote the rest of her week to guiding and mentoring students doing research.
  • Making research spaces as available as possible outside of class as well as during class can give students increased flexibility to conduct their work. Using campus/local projects can reduce or eliminate transportation and time issues.

Funding, Equipment, and Space

Funding for equipment, supplies, and other needs is often in short supply. Further, most community colleges were not planned and designed with student research in mind, leading to a shortage of useful laboratory space.

  • Without dedicated research space, Laura Guertin taps into student interest in community- and outreach-based projects to engage them in outdoor research such as her tree banding project.
  • Seek out sources of used equipment. Often, government agencies and universities store old but usable research equipment as surplus that can either be given to community colleges or sold at a discounted rate (Villalobos, 2010).
  • Becca Walker and Mark Boryta encourage their students at Mt. San Antonio College to think creatively about presenting at professional meetings: local/regional meetings tend to be more cost effective than national ones; shared lodging with other students can further reduce costs; volunteering at the meeting can result in discounted registration; attending functions with free refreshments can help stretch food dollars further.
  • It doesn't take a major grant or donation to make a difference. A relatively small amount of money can make a large impact on students and projects, whether through additional equipment and samples, money for data compilation, or by providing a stipend. So keep an eye out for institutional grant opportunities or ways to collaborate with other local institutions. Also look for programs from professional societies. For example, the National Association of Geoscience Teachers awards small grants to 2YC geoscience faculty and students via the Dorothy Stout Professional Development Grants program.
  • Literature subscriptions may also be in short supply at 2YC institution libraries. Getting colleagues to donate articles, journals, or books and collecting your own can form the nucleus of a small research library for students to use.

Student Preparation

Students at 2YCs can vary greatly in their academic history and preparation. It's important that research experiences be scaled to challenge them without pushing too far and turning them off.

  • In course-based research projects, individual or small-group activities can be tailored to the abilities and preparation of the students. Groups of mixed ability can also provide peer teaching and support if well constructed.
  • Breaking the experience of research up into manageable pieces can scaffold students through the process without overwhelming them with the whole package. For example, a student's first experience with independent research may simply involve collecting a specific kind of data for an existing ongoing project. Experience analyzing data, drawing conclusions, and designing new research questions can be built up piece by piece.
  • If students have gaps in specific areas like quantitative skills or English language proficiency, there are ways to help them be more successful. These strategies can give both students and faculty new tools to work with.

Administrative Systems, Capacity, and Support

Just as every campus is different, every campus administration is different. Understanding what support is available at your institution is important. Further, demonstrating positive outcomes for students and community outreach can open doors to more institutional support.

  • Joshua Villalobos collects data on how research experiences support his students before, during, and after they transfer from El Paso Community College to the University of Texas - El Paso and then uses that data to gain the support of apprehensive campus administrators.
  • Many 2YCs lack experience administering and writing grants and may not even have an office (or person) to help. If applying for grant funding is part of your plan, spend time identifying what support is available at your institution. Find and interview other faculty at your school that have successfully gotten funding to learn from their experience.
  • State mandates in California prohibit 2YC students from getting credit for the same course more than once. So Walker and Boryta at Mt. San Antonio are developing a sequence of research courses with different course goals as a way of keeping students engaged in research while allowing an opportunity for more experienced students to mentor those new to the program.
  • The High Altitude Ballooning project at Central Lakes College - Brainerd gives David Kobilka the opportunity to showcase the collaboration with Bemidji State University and outreach to local middle school students. This visibility attracts students to the program and brings positive attention to the department and institution which has encouraged the administration to support the project. Generating good publicity for your institution is a great way to build good-will.