Undergraduate Research in Geoscience at Community College of Rhode Island
The Community College of Rhode Island is a large community college (about 18,000 students) and the only one in Rhode Island. Although it is one community college, there are four campuses, ranging from urban to suburban. Most students are from in-state and transfer to one of the two public four year schools in Rhode Island, one of which has a geoscience program. The number of minorities enrolled has been increasing dramatically over the past decade, and minority enrollment is currently over 30% of the total student body.
The geosciences are part of the physics department, which is made up of both physics and geology faculty. There are four full-time geoscience faculty, although we are split between campuses, and I am the only one at my campus. We offer general education, introductory-level classes with no prereqs, such as physical geology, historical geology, oceanography, and natural disasters.
Research Program Description
All undergraduate research is done at the level of the individual professor, not at the department level. My goal for having students do undergraduate research is to have students gain a better understanding of the nature of science and learn skills through engaging in the scientific process. I want these goals both for students who are taking their only science class with me as well as for students who are interested in becoming geoscience majors.
Therefore, my approach to undergraduate research is two-pronged. In addition to a variety of inquiry-based labs, I have all students complete an undergraduate research project in one of my classes (for example, the Geoscience education research project). In addition, for students who are interested in the subject and motivated to do more, I work with them on an Honors Project. The Honors Project can be an expansion of their class research project and writing a scientific paper on it, or it may be a separate project. For a few students, we have built their Honors Project into an independent study, either during the semester or the summer. Although a few of my Honors students do field-based research, many work with me on geo-ed research, resulting in some student presentations at meetings and co-authorships on publications.
Through anecdotal evidence, students have found the research projects valuable. Most of those students that started the project thinking that they were possibly interested in becoming a geoscience major ended up successfully transferring as a major to the local university.
Outcomes and Benefits
An important outcome is that students gain a better understanding of the nature of science (which I encourage by requiring some metacognitive activities during and after their research). Students who are interested in majoring in the geosciences and do a more involved project benefit in many ways, such as verifying their interest, increasing their confidence in doing science, and gaining practice with research methods that they will again use later in their major. I enjoy working closely with interested students and sharing my love of the subject with them. And on a few occasions, I have gained a co-author on abstracts and research publications.
Challenges and Solutions
Probably my biggest challenge is the time required to dedicate to the students. For my in-class research project, I created activities for students to give each other feedback on different aspects on their projects, therefore alleviating my grading load. For advising Honors projects outside of class, I don't get compensations or recognition. However, I feel the benefits are worth the time and effort, so I continue to mentor students. I recently had several students doing separate but related projects, and I had them peer-review each other. This peer-review made them accountable to someone other than me, it gave them feedback from more than person, and it gave them a second attempt on their work before I saw it. However, I'm not sure how much it actually reduced my time spent, and I think I need to give more structured guidance to get better results in the future.
Another challenge is the lack of equipment and dedicated space for students to do research. I therefore have students do research that does not require equipment, such as specific field projects and geo-ed research projects.
Keys to Success
Success is different for each student, since each student has different goals. A successful project is one that helps students achieve (or work towards achieving) their goals and gives them confidence in their ability to work independently and do science.
Since students are different, there is no one-size-fits-all project. Students' schedules, interests, skills, and motivation all vary and result in different research projects. For example, it is tough to find the right balance between guiding the students and letting them figure things out on their own, and I don't think I've fully figured out how to do that yet. However, it varies by student, and their (guided) independence is essential in giving them an authentic research experience.
Geoscience education research project – this is an introductory-level authentic undergraduate research project that does not use equipment.