Peer Review

Embedding Undergraduate Research in the Community College Curriculum

Several years ago, one of the authors (Nancy Hensel) became aware that students transferring from community colleges to four-year colleges or universities often needed an extra year to complete their science degree because they had missed having an undergraduate research experience. To address this issue, the Council on Undergraduate Research (CUR) and the National Council of Instructional Administrators (NCIA), an affiliate of the American Association of Community Colleges, agreed to collaborate on a project to increase undergraduate research in community colleges.

Launching Conversations about Community College Undergraduate Research

CUR and NCIA initially applied for and received an Advanced Technological Education grant from the National Science Foundation. The grant provided funds to host six regional conversations with community college faculty and representatives from government, business, and industry to explore undergraduate research at community colleges. Conversations were held in Illinois, Massachusetts, Washington, California, Georgia, and Oklahoma and asked three broad questions:

  • What is currently happening regarding undergraduate research at community colleges?
  • In what kind of research activities would community colleges like to involve undergraduates?
  • How could CUR and NCIA help community colleges realize their goals for students’ participation in undergraduate research?

We found great interest in undergraduate research with community colleges developing their own ways of engaging students in research. Research was viewed primarily as a teaching strategy for students to develop skills and abilities for transfer to a four-year college or to enhance their work skills. We also found that undergraduate research was almost always the result of individual effort or possibly a small group rather than an institutionalized program across the campus.

Participation in undergraduate research has been found to be an effective method for developing students’ problem-solving skills and work habits, connecting classroom experiences to the world of work, and improving student retention. Community colleges play a significant role in preparing America’s work force. The skills students develop through undergraduate research—such as the ability to work in teams, communicate effectively, and solve problems—are skills that are needed in any job (Hart Research Associates 2015). As more and more students are completing the first two years of their education at community colleges, providing undergraduate research opportunities at community colleges becomes increasingly important.

Tailoring Undergraduate Research to Community Colleges

Based on the findings of the conversations at the six regional meetings, we applied for and received a second National Science Foundation grant in the Transforming Undergraduate Education (TUES) program. The goals of the second grant were to (1) develop a workshop curriculum to implement undergraduate research tailored to the needs of community colleges, (2) provide workshops for community colleges considering undergraduate research programs, and (3) develop an undergraduate research mentoring network of community college faculty. A total of 104 community colleges across the country and more than 400 faculty members were involved in three-day regional workshops. While we found community college faculty to be highly enthusiastic about engaging their students in undergraduate research, logistically, the heavy teaching loads of community college faculty, the lack of facilities dedicated to research, and the limited funds available to support research provide challenges to initiating undergraduate research programs. From the institutional perspective, there is a sense on the part of some that the community college mission of teaching is incompatible with research, even when students are engaged in the research as a teaching pedagogy.

The workshop curriculum emphasized embedding research projects into courses to ensure that the greatest numbers of students have the opportunity to participate in research. Community college faculty have been inventive in developing research projects that take advantage of local resources and address local concerns, thus pointing to the benefit of undergraduate research as a means to demonstrate the community component of the community college. At the workshop, faculty members created plans that demonstrate a hierarchy of skills that can be woven through the curriculum.

Our goal was to develop an approach to undergraduate research that was cost effective and developmentally appropriate for community college students. While our intention was to encourage faculty members to engage first-year students in research activities at their own campus rather than sending their students to a four-year campus, many of the activities could easily be applied to four-year colleges that are engaging first- and second-year students in research. We found that community colleges’ strong commitment to student development resulted in a high level of support for students’ first experience with undergraduate research. This is especially important to the population of first-generation, low-income students who often attend community colleges while also working and possibly raising a family.

Research projects for community college students need to take into account students’ time constraints; limited institutional resources, such as a lack of sophisticated lab equipment; limited faculty time; and student perceptions about the difficulty of research. During the course of the workshop, teams from the respective community colleges developed an action plan to take back to their campus and share with colleagues to solicit additional ideas, after which they could begin the process of developing an undergraduate research program that extends beyond a few committed professors. Developing campus-wide undergraduate research programs often takes several years, and we tried to set realistic expectations so participants would not become discouraged and give up.

Our follow-up with participants at one year and two years after the workshops indicated that many campuses were on the way to fully implementing their action plans. Nidhi Gadura, of Queensborough Community College, reported that,

We have a lot of research happening across multiple disciples on campus now. We made a small Faculty Inquiry Group last year and have since then recruited several faculty members to start incorporating authentic research experiences in their curriculum. All these efforts and attending your workshops have made a big difference for us. I have since then partnered with Cold Spring Harbor Lab and incorporated their DNA Barcoding experiments in my Genetics course. I will be presenting that at the American Society for Microbiology Conference for Undergraduate Educators conference in May. We now have faculty on board from chemistry, math, sociology, and physics departments as well (Personal communication, March 6, 2015).

South Georgia State College, a community college that offers two baccalaureate degrees, began its undergraduate research program after faculty from the institution attended one of our workshops. Six courses at South Georgia State have added significant research assignments to psychology, economics, and sociology courses. While students were taught the skills necessary to complete a fairly simple research project, they still had difficulty with the assignment. Some students felt overwhelmed by the amount of information provided, while other students wanted more information. Finally, after several attempts to make adjustments, faculty concluded that the problem was students’ anxiety about research. Students were uncertain about their abilities. Watching the students struggle with the research assignment was disconcerting to faculty members until they realized that students often struggle with assignments, but with the research assignments their struggles were out in the open and could more easily be addressed. South Georgia State College remains committed to developing a vibrant research program, and faculty realize that it may take several years to do so (Holiwski 2014).

It is not unusual for students to feel anxious about research. Community college students in particular do not readily see themselves as scholars, and first-generation college students are even less likely to see themselves as researchers. The understanding and commitment of the South Georgia faculty will, over time, create an environment to foster active participation in research.

Working with Community Partners

We encouraged workshop participants to look to their communities for possible cost-effective research projects. Finger Lakes Community College is located in an area of abundant wildlife, and faculty there became aware that the bear population was increasing dramatically. They initiated a partnership with the New York Department of Environmental Conservation. John Van Niel proposed two courses, Black Bear Management 1 and 2, to engage students in research on the bear population. The first challenge he encountered was that the curriculum committee did not want to approve a class with a limit of twelve students. It is difficult to engage a large number of students in a field research project, and yet it is important that students have this kind of opportunity. Once the class was approved, it became very popular and frequently had a waiting list. Van Niel began offering the class on Friday afternoon to ensure that the students who enrolled were truly committed to the course. He found that even though students who enroll in the course come from various disciplines and a wide range of abilities, they become engaged in the course and are able to see the contribution their work makes to bear management (Van Niel 2014).

At Mesa Community College, biology student Andy Bridges found a readily available and possibly dangerous research subject—the rattlesnakes that sometimes appeared on the Arizona campus. Bridges decided that tracking the rattlesnakes would make an excellent undergraduate research project. Students track the snakes by a transmitter and can identify the range of snake movement, the habitat they choose, what they eat, how often they hunt, when they mate, and how many offspring they produce ( Students in Andy Baldwin’s biology class examine samples of snake scales and identify DNA that helps them track where the snakes move to mate. The project encourages student questions and develops their curiosity. Many students want to continue studying the snakes ( after the course ends.

Other colleges have found local organizations be a source of opportunities for undergraduate research. The historical society can be a resource for original local history research and students can begin to learn the methodology of historical research. The Chamber of Commerce may have projects that students can undertake to assist small businesses. Nonprofit agencies often need assistance in data collection and analysis that can provide interesting experiences for students. Studying how people use community parks can help city planners design new recreation areas. Community college faculty need to be observant about the needs of their community and be open to the possibilities for student research.

Obtaining On- and Off-Campus Support for Undergraduate Research Programs

The benefits of undergraduate research at four-year colleges have been well documented (Lopatto 2003; Russell et al. 2007; Seymour et al. 2004), and the benefits are likely to be similar for community college students. To further develop undergraduate research programs, community college faculty will need the support of trustees and administrators who recognize that undergraduate research is a powerful pedagogy for underrepresented students, has the potential to increase retention and transfer to a four-year program, and can help students develop skills necessary for a qualified twenty-first-century workforce. Some trustees and administrators hold that research is not part of the community college mission, as they do not fully appreciate the concept of undergraduate research as a teaching tool. Therefore it is important to provide information to community college trustees and leaders demonstrating the long-term value and educational outcomes resulting from student participation in undergraduate research initiatives.

Community colleges will also need to develop an infrastructure to support research initiatives. System and state offices will need to support the curricular modifications needed to include student research. Collective bargaining units also will need to review contracts to eliminate sections that preclude or make difficult engagement in student/faculty collaborative research. A grants officer or an individual to provide assistance with grant writing will be very important to facilitate success in securing external funding. Students and faculty members will need appropriate training in responsible conduct of research. Projects may require an institutional review board to review studies involving animal or human subjects. Laboratory technicians will need professional development to understand their role in student research and manage the necessary changes.

With nearly 50 percent of students beginning their college experience at a community college, it is important that community colleges provide undergraduate research experiences. This is especially important not only for retaining students in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) but also in teacher education, because many future elementary teachers receive their math and science education at community colleges.

Moreover, there is evidence that community college students who have participated in research are as successful at conducting research as their four-year peers. A student from Del Mar College won the grand prize at the third annual Science and Energy Research Challenge hosted by Argonne National Laboratory. Three students from Volunteer State Community College were awarded the top prize in the organic chemistry poster competition at the Southeastern Regional Meeting of the American Chemical Society in fall 2014. Truckee Meadows Community College was one of three postsecondary institutions recognized in the 2014 Energy Department Geothermal Student Competition. In the previous seven years a number of community colleges (Delaware Technical Community College, Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana, Kapi`olani Community College, Massbay Community College, North Seattle Community College, and Southwestern College) have been selected through a competitive process to represent student research accomplishments at the Council on Undergraduate Research Posters on the Hill event in Washington, DC. Similar success stories can be found in many of the respective state Posters on the Hill competitions.

It is our contention that all students, no matter what their future profession, will benefit from the learning that is part of the undergraduate research experience. It is our further belief that undergraduate research helps to develop more competent professionals and engaged citizens. It has been our privilege to work with our community college students to promote student success.


Baldwin, Andy. 2012. “Mesa CC Snake Study.”, Recorded February 1, 2012.

Hart Research Associates. 2015. Falling Short? College Learning and Career Success. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Hensel, Nancy H., and Brent D. Cejda. 2014. Tapping the Potential of All: Undergraduate Research at Community Colleges. Washington, DC: Council on Undergraduate Research.

Holiwski, Frank. 2014. “Implementing Undergraduate Research at South Georgia State College.” In Tapping the Potential of All: Undergraduate Research at Community Colleges, edited by Nancy H. Hensel and Brent D. Cejda. Washington, DC: Council on Undergraduate Research.

Lopatto, David. 2003. “The Essential Skills of Undergraduate Research.” CUR Quarterly 3. (23): 139–140.

Russell, Susan H., Mary P. Hancock, and James McCullough. 2007. “The Pipeline: The Benefits of Undergraduate Research Experiences.” Science 316 (5824): 548–49.

Seymour, Elaine, Anne-Barrie Hunter, Saundra L. Laursen, and Tracee DeAntoni. 2004. “Establishing the Benefits of Undergraduate Research in the Sciences: First Findings from a Three-year Study.” Science Education (88): 493–534.

Van Niel, John F. 2014. “Bears in Our Backyard.” In Tapping the Potential of All: Undergraduate Research at Community Colleges, edited by Nancy H. Hensel and Brent D. Cejda. Washington, DC: Council on Undergraduate Research.

Nancy H. Hensel, president, New American Colleges and Universities, former executive officer, the Council on Undergraduate Research; and Brent D. Cejda, professor and department chair, educational administration, University of Nebraska–Lincoln

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