Undergraduate Research in Geoscience at Central Wyoming College
Central Wyoming College is a rural community college, within the boundaries of the Wind River Indian Reservation. CWC serves a student population of ~1500 including online and dual-enrollment students. The Earth, Energy, Environment (E^3) program is housed in the Science Department, within the Health and Science Division. There are 2 geoscience faculty who serve 5 different tracks toward traditional AS degrees and industry-defined AAS degrees and certificates. Geoscience courses offered are: physical, historical and environmental geology, geology field trips, Earth system Science, environmental science, industry health and safety (OSHA), environmental technician (water, soil, remediation), geographic information systems.
Research Program Description
The E^3 program currently supports three research topics:
- Understanding/defining the biogeochemistry and microbiology of thermophiles in Hot Springs Park, Thermopolis, WY
- Explaining the landscape evolution and prehistoric climate change of anonymously flat, elevated surfaces (Table Mountain, Red Butte, other unnamed)along the eastern front range of the Wind River Mountains .
- Climate studies on glacier evolution in the Wind River Mountains (Gannett and Dinwoody Glaciers); understanding current climate change.
Other (retired) projects include:
- Organization and cataloging of mineral, rock and fossil collections at CWC
- Understanding/defining the hydrogeology of Red Canyon Creek and its tributaries
The above research projects have supported 22 students since 2003. Six new students were added in the summer of 2014.
What we've done:
Thermopolis: This is our longest continuously running project which has evolved from simple morphologic mapping and water chemistry to DNA extraction, sequencing and genomic analysis. Last year we also added a geophysical component, in an effort to image/map the source structures. Depending upon the ambitiousness of the students involved, they can choose to define a research question of their own or pick up something that's already under investigation. The basic research question is: What's in all that green stuff growing in the hot water, and why? So far we have confirmed that the water chemistry is consistent (i.e. boring) temporally and spatially, which is consistent with deep water mixing. We have defined over 50 genera within the source and its outflow channel. There does not appear to be any temporal or spatial correlation. Some of them appear to be unique to this environment. Our focus this year will be on understanding how to interpret the genomic data and to image the underground flow regime. This research project has been embedded into our Earth System Science course (GEOL 2000) as an extended study which results in an abstract an presentation at the state-wide Undergraduate Research Day. In a few cases, it has also resulted in poster presentations (by the students) at an annual GSA meeting (in Denver - affordable since we can all drive).
Table Mountain: This has been a sporadic study, depending upon availability of funding and student interest. Simple soil mapping, soil profiles and boulder location description was the initial focus. We were able to do geophysical (resistivity) profiles last summer and plan to use other geophysical methods this year. In addition, we hope to do cosmogenic dating on the large boulders that dominate the surface of there flat land marks.
Gannet Glacier: This is a new study, initiated by outdoor education and western American studies students who were enrolled in our new Environmental Science Course. They are combining an expedition to climb the tallest peak in Wyoming (Gannet Peak) to map the extent of Gannett and Dinwoody glaciers which reside on the peak. It is widely known the WR glaciers are treating exponentially. Research techniques will include GPS and GIS, Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR), and archaeological reconnaissance.
Outcomes and Benefits
Our outcomes are simple:
- To expose the student to research at an early stage of their education.
- To provide significance to what students are learning in their courses so that they value what they are learning.
- To provide the students with experiences that will build their resume and encourage them to aspire to higher educational and career goals.
- Many of our students have received tremendous financial support to continue on to their BS and in some cases, MS.
- Our students are much more confident than the average early UG student, in all aspects of their lives, not just those academic- or research-based.
- Our students have gained competency in conducting and presenting research, that is rewarded by receiving internships as they continue their studies.
- Our faculty have gained experience and confidence in finding funding to conduct the research projects.
- Our faculty have created beneficial collaborations while increasing interest in UG research in our academic community.
- We have created an administratively-supported co-curricular learning community across the curriculum.
- Its just plain fun for faculty to interact with and watch the students mature in their confidence with science.
- With support of the administration, we secured a dedicated UG research lab in our new Health & Science Building.
Assessment: We have only anecdotal evidence of student accomplishments at this point. Our partnership with the Community College Undergraduate Research Initiative (CCURI) has recently provided us with pre-/post-assessment tools and an expert in interpreting the results. We are looking forward to incorporating this tool in our research programs.
Challenges and Solutions
Time, time and time. Our administration has included undergraduate research in the CWC Strategic Plan for 2014-15. This will result in an analysis of faculty load and compensation for research, while maintaining our main focus on teaching. An atmosphere of "publish or perish" is not compatible with our community college mission. On the other hand, faculty are adding these research experiences to already heavy teaching loads. A move toward competency-based learning experiences may relieve some of the time burdens (by incorporating some of the skills instruction into general education courses or competencies). Our administration has seen the value of these experiences and have supported our efforts.
The most challenging part of doing research with UG students is helping them see the importance and value of extensive note-taking for observations and data. We also need to help them understand how science writing is different from creative writing. To meet this challenge, we are trying to create a general education sophomore-level course that includes these topics along with others important to science (oral presentation, publications beyond meeting abstracts, etc.).
There are challenges among colleagues who are not interested in adding research to their load. We have found jealously and resentment in some cases. But with supportive Deans, we continue on our way without worrying about how others see what we do or who we are.
Keys to Success
Success for our programs are the success of our students:
a) the interest of students to continue with research experience as they continue their academic experience. b) The confidence that students have gained and how that plays out as they continue toward their BS, MS and PhD, or their post-baccalaureate careers.
- Go slow. One small step at a time. It has taken over ten years to establish our program and it is ever-evolving. Look for small funding sources to get going. Gain the trust and support of your administration. Small successes on your part makes the institution proud of what you have accomplished which, in turn makes them even more encouraging of what you do.
- Understand and accept that early undergraduates are not graduate students or post-docs. Mistakes will be made. Treat them as learning experiences, both for you and for the student(s).
I use this site as an introductory text for the students in my microbiology study: Microbial Life - Educational Resources.
Community College Undergraduate Research Initiative
Notes: We must acknowledge all of the agencies who have provided us funding in the past 11 years: Wyoming Space Grant Consortium (WSGC), Wyoming INBRE, Wyoming EPSCoR, CCURI.