Undergraduate Research in Geoscience at EPCC
With over 45% of all college students in the U.S. attending a two-year institutions (community colleges) and more than 40% of recent graduates in science and engineering attending a community college at some point in their education, community colleges are becoming recognized as a rich source of untapped academic talent in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. Despite these statistics two-year colleges have not received the same level of funding or attention for innovative programs and activities that four-year institutions typically have.
El Paso Community College has 5 campuses spread over El Paso County with each serving a unique socio-economic segment of El Paso's diverse society. EPCC is also one of the top 25 community colleges enrolling Latinos and the top 25 of institutions awarding Associate Degrees to Latinos. EPCC's enrollment has been increasing dramatically over the last decade, from 19,859 in fall 2002 to 30,176 in fall 2012, an increase of 34%. The geology discipline at EPCC is composed of five full-time faculty members, one lecturer, and on average 10-15 part-time instructors. Each discipline at EPCC reports to a dean assigned to that discipline to help facilitate projects or issues within the discipline.
EPCC offers an Associate of Science in Geology and currently has over 60 students enrolled as Geology Majors. Geology courses that are offered for students under the A.S. degree are: Geological Field Methods- teaches students the fundamentals of geological field work and mapping, Research Topics in Geology-allows instructor to give students credit for research projects or implement a special topics course, Environmental Geology- online class that allows flexibility for students who may not be able to do research or field work. In order to complete the A.S. degree, all geology majors much complete at least two of the three upper-level geology classes. The degree is fully articulated with the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) so all credits from EPCC are transferred into the B.S. Geology degree at UTEP. The A.S. degree at EPCC is not designed to be a terminal degree for the students, although many find work with an A.S. in local environmental firms; it is designed to facilitate students into entering the Geological Sciences B.S. program at UTEP. As a Hispanic Serving Institution with over 85% Hispanic students, EPCC is uniquely positioned to contribute to increasing the number of minority students seeking a career in STEM fields.
Research Program Description
Student research in the geosciences at El Paso Community College has been an ever growing component at our institution since 2007. Student research at a 2YC was not an easy task to begin and implement but the results of allowing students to conduct research at EPCC produced more positive outcomes than ever expected.
The goals of allowing students to conduct research at EPCC were:
- to help foster confidence in students in doing research. The perception from most 2YC students is that research is only done by doctoral or university graduate students often gives 2YC students a false sense of inadequacy if they're interested in being a STEM major.
- to allow 2YC students to gain the formative experiences in lab and field work that many 4YC students have opportunities to pursue. Having this experience at the 2YC means that when the students transfer to the 4YC they are not at a disadvantage by not having these experiences.
- to provide a means to introduce EPCC students and their skills to UTEP faculty who are willing to host students in their research projects on the UTEP campus. This also allows students to become familiar with the UTEP campus and department which help ease the cultural shock of transferring to a 4YC after graduation.
- to provide an understanding for students and their family on what "field work" is. Many Hispanic families have a negative connotation on the term "field work" and may not approve a degree that has their child doing "field work" as part of their education.
- to provide a means to gather qualitative and quantitative data (number of participants, success stories, percent graduation, photos) on the geology discipline that can be used for both internal (deans, committee and discipline reviews, PR, administration support, etc.) and external (grant proposals, recruitment, community outreach, etc.).
Outcomes and Benefits
The results of allowing the students to conduct research at EPCC have been very positive. Since beginning research (2007) and implementing the A.S. degree (2004) at EPCC the number of geology majors has grown from 1 in 2005 to 67 in 2013. In terms of graduations since 2008 we have graduated 25 geology students from EPCC. Since 2012 we have had 5 students participate in REU programs while being enrolled as EPCC students with another 3 EPCC graduates participating in REUs their first year enrolled at UTEP. All students stated that the research they conducted at EPCC was a key factor in their acceptance into or desire to participate in an REU program.
Challenges and Solutions
The most important aspect in conducting research at a 2YC is to expect challenges, many challenges, but not to let these challenges stop you or your students.
Projects - When designing a research project, take into consideration the students situation (single parent, full-time job, no vehicle, disabilities, etc.) and education (may not have the right math skill or geological foundation). 2YC research projects should be small but challenging semester long projects that can be either duplicated or enhanced by another student or group of students the following semester. Projects should enforce research and field skills not necessarily ground breaking results....although sometimes it does occur! Often a good research project consists of a few days in the field for training and data collection followed by several weeks of data entry and interpretation. Having the student produce a final product on their research (i.e. poster) gives the student an added incentive to complete and take pride in their work. Both GSA and AGU have sessions for 2YC students and offer a discounted meeting rate for students doing virtual presentations.
Funding - Large scale research projects often need large amounts of funds which many 2YC do not have. Partnering with a local 4YC if possible allows your students to conduct research at that institution or the use of their equipment.
Grants - Many grants, especially NSF, are now being geared specifically for 2YC research. Find out if your institution has a grants office that can assist you in procuring a grant for student research. It's best to have completed several small research projects with good outcomes before attempting to write your first grant. Keep track of all qualitative and quantitative data on your projects and students for supportive evidence on any possible future projects you may want funded. Find out if there have been any one other faculty members who have received grant money before and ask them about their experiences in getting projects going, working with the administration, distributing funds to students and projects.
Workload - The biggest challenge for 2YC professors is finding time for research with students. Be aware that taking on student research projects will be time consuming, if you're doing it right! Be prepared to invest much of your free time in helping students out and mentoring them on their project. I've typically arranged my schedule to have one day of the week free of classes so I can conduct field or lab work with my students. Building that mentoring relationship is vital in the success of any student or program. Time with your students allows you to identify problems and challenges they may face in the future as well as ensures that they keep you up to date on their future successes.
Administration - The vast majority of 2YC administrators are still under the assumption (and rightfully so) that 2YCs are institutions for learning and not research. However many administrators (and professors) are unaware of the benefits and pedagogical changes that have occurred because of incorporating research into the classroom. Having supportive data on how conducting research at 2YC is not only possible but productive is often a good tool in turning apprehensive administrators into supporting ones.
Partners - The most challenging aspect of starting 2YC-4YC partnership is initiating the conversation! Many 4YC will be very reluctant to take on a 2YC student or have them in their labs due to a lack of familiarity with the students. So first make sure you understand and know your students strengths, weaknesses, and level of enthusiasm to not only take on a project but to complete it. A single outstanding student will open many faculty doors while a single bad student will ensure their doors will remain locked! 2YC students are more than willing to help out in the form of data collection, data entry, and field work. Even though some of these tasks may seem trivial, being a part of university project and forming a working relationship with a 4YC professor gives students the confidence to continue to pursue their education. It also allows 4YC professors to see what 2YC students are capable of. However, you may find that you'll need to put some leg work into finding a supportive 4YC faculty member. Yet when you find the right 4YC partner(s) who understands what to expect from you and your students they will be a huge asset in getting other faculty to help in future collaborations.
Keys to Success
Knowing what you will define as success is often a difficult task in developing a research program at a 2YC. They are often grouped into qualitative (level of student's confidence, understanding of what science is, learning to overcome personal issues and conflicts to get an education, etc.) and quantitative (number of majors in your program, class fill rates, graduation rates, transfer rates, job acceptance percentages, etc). 2YC research projects or programs typically can't be measured by more traditional means such as completion of the project or its publication in a journal, but rather they should be measured by how the experience of doing research has changed that students perception of themselves and of geology. The biggest challenge in geology is not getting students to understand geology but getting students to understand that they can become geologist. Having them do research bridges that gap that many students face of understanding what geology is and what it takes to become a geologist.
Advice: Don't waste a good crisis! If a student does not succeed, try to find out as much as possible to prevent future similar situations from occurring again. Be aware that 2YC students are more prone to encountering events in their life (work, family, health, financial) that can affect their education. The more you understand your students the better you'll be at guiding them their education and their research!
The Important Role of Two-year Colleges in the Earth and Space Sciences: Report from a planning workshop to create Unique Research Experiencesfor two-year-College faculty And Students (URECAS) Report from AGU-sponsored workshop in 2013.