Undergraduate Research in Geoscience at Mt. San Antonio College

Information for this profile was provided by Becca Walker and Mark Boryta, Earth Sciences and Astronomy.

Departmental/Institutional Context

Mt. San Antonio College (Mt. SAC) is a single-campus, suburban community college in Walnut, CA (Los Angeles County) with over 35,000 credit students. The Earth Sciences and Astronomy Department, which resides within the Natural Sciences Division, has 5 full-time geoscience faculty and 3 full-time astronomy faculty. We offer courses in geology, oceanography, meteorology, and astronomy, most of which satisfy the Physical Science General Education requirement necessary for transfer to a 4-year institution.

Research Program Description

Project goals:

  • Provide freshman and sophomore-level undergraduates with an Early Research Experience for Undergraduates (E-REU) opportunity. (Most REU programs are geared toward junior and senior level undergraduates. First and second-year geoscience students at 2YCs are at a competitive disadvantage for various reasons.)
  • Facilitate an increased understanding of the research process.
  • Train students in selected field (stream profiling, pace measuring, sediment collecting, use of topographic maps, bedrock geologic mapping) and laboratory (sieving, grain size studies, roundness studies, microscopy) techniques; organization, plotting, and analysis of data.
  • Prompt thinking about the complexity of a natural system and compare real data to the idealized model of sediment evolution with increased distance from the source that is generally taught in intro-level courses.
What we've done:
Faculty devised a GEOL99 (special projects in geology) project (ongoing sedimentological investigation of Trabuco Canyon, San Juan Creek watershed, Orange County) that was feasible given our geographic location , available resources, and student content knowledge. The project started in spring 2012, when faculty trained students in stream profiling and sediment collection during a field outing and sieving of collected samples in the lab. Faculty met periodically with students for informal status updates.

For the next 3 semesters, we used a peer instruction model in which faculty accompanied students on one field day and observed returning students training new students in field techniques. Subsequently, returning students and new students conducted additional fieldwork without faculty, and returning students trained new students in lab techniques. As the project evolved, faculty-student meeting were held 2x/month and focused on plotting and interpreting data (grain size plots, ternary diagrams, etc.)

Participation in GEOL99 has a presentation requirement. Students have presented posters at local events (Kepler Scholarship event at Mt. SAC), regional meetings (GSA Cordilleran Section meeting in Fresno), and national meetings (AGU 2012, GSA Denver 2013.)

Outcomes and Benefits

Despite these barriers, I believe that engaging community college students in early undergraduate research experiences has tremendous potential with respect to career reflection and preparation. I observed students during fieldwork and team meetings and saw increases in the frequency and duration of collaboration, establishment of a division of labor based on individual strengths, and acquisition of field, lab, and communication skills. Finally, I've included a few representative quotes from students' reflective writing indicating that their experiences aligned with our overarching goals. We are excited to use what we learned this spring and continue offering research experiences in future semesters for community college students.

  • "It wasn't like a normal field trip where we had specified guidelines and papers that we had to fill out. We had to determine what we wanted to do and how in depth we wanted to do it."
  • "This is really the first chance I've had to use knowledge from the classroom to solve problems in the field... There were mistakes made, but this was all part of the process of learning....I gained a lot of experience working with procedures similar to those used by professional geologists."
  • "For me it was more than a lab class. I got to perceive geology in the real world...I could see mountains, the dry stream bed, vegetation, human activities, all interacting...I was 'getting what geology is all about'.

Excerpt from Walker's 2012 Essay.

Challenges and Solutions

The most significant challenge that we're currently facing is the issue of repeatability. Recent state mandates prohibit students from receiving credit for the same course more than once, which means that once a student takes GEOL99 for one semester, that's it. This has resulted in a temporary hiatus of our research program because (a) most of the students who want to take GEOL99 have taken it already; (b) it eliminates the peer training component, which is an integral part of the program. We have learned that students need several semesters of engagement in the research process to benefit most from the program. As such, we are trying to develop a sequence of research courses (ex: GEOL99A, GEOL99B, GEOL99C), each with different course measurable objectives, to allow students to continue participating in the program for multiple semesters.

GEOL99 does not count as part of our teaching load. It is challenging, to say the least, to devote the amount of time that we would like to mentoring, discussion of data, field work, instruction in lab techniques, etc. when we are already teaching 5-6 other courses.

Other challenges include:

  1. Lack of funding to send students to meetings to present their work. We encourage our students to volunteer at meetings to subsidize their meeting costs, share lodging, and attend as many functions with free food as possible! Also, attending local and regional meetings is more cost-effective than national meetings.
  2. Lack of access to peer-reviewed literature makes it difficult for students to conduct lit reviews. We have done what we can to scrounge up papers or "borrow" subscriptions from colleagues, but we feel as though we could be doing a better job with this.

Keys to Success

  • It is imperative to have regular (ideally, weekly, but at least once every 2 weeks) group meetings in which students present specific deliverables.
  • For students who have never dabbled in research, there is often a misconception that they will be able to "finish" the project in one semester—for example, some of our students assumed that they would be able to conduct a complete sedimentological analysis of the entire watershed in one semester—so that misconception should be addressed early in the program.
  • Peer instruction is tremendously valuable for new and veteran students. Faculty can serve a quality control role in the peer instruction process by observing students in the field and lab to make sure that techniques are being performed systematically and correctly.


Walker, B., and Boryta, M., 2013, An early undergraduate research experience for community college students: benefits, challenges, and lessons learned from faculty and students, Geological Society of America Abstracts With Programs, vol. 45, no. 7, p. 570.

Ketting-Olivier, A., De Martinez, L., Miller, A., Chi, B., Lee, T., Boryta, M., Mrofka, D., and Walker, B., 2013, Increased angularity of sand-sized grains reflecting fluvial processes of Trabuco Creek, Orange County, CA: preliminary results from a community college research experience, Geological Society of America Abstracts With Programs, v., 45, no. 7, p. 571.

Boryta, M., Walker, B., Carlos, R., Carrizal, J.T., Chi, B., De Martinez, L, Diaz, M.A., Hoffmann, A., Ketting-Olivier, A., and Villanueva, L., 2013, Sustainable and meaningful research opportunities for community college students, Geological Society of America Abstracts With Programs, vol. 45, no. 6, p. 61.

Walker, B. (2012). Developing meaningful and manageable research opportunities for community college students: lessons learned from semester #1. Essay for 2012 workshop Preparing Students in Two-year Colleges for Geoscience Degrees and Careers. Tacoma, WA.