According to the American Association of Community Colleges, 45% of all U.S. undergraduates are community college students. When you take into account two specific minority groups, the results are astounding. 52% of African American undergraduates and 57% Hispanic undergraduates are enrolled at a community college. On average, attending a community college is about $6000 cheaper than attending a four-year state university. Community colleges have a huge impact on undergraduate education in the U.S.
So, could community colleges make a difference when it comes to recruiting, retaining, graduating, and sending science students to universities? Is there even a need? Why should we be concerned about sending students into STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) fields? First of all, some of the fastest-growing jobs are STEM-related, and we’re not doing a good job of keeping up. For example, let’s say a textile plant lays hundreds of workers off because of an economic recession. Then, several years later the same plant starts hiring again, but the jobs look a little different. Instead of relying on people to actually do the work, the plant now relies on people to operate electronics to do the work. The previous workers simply aren’t qualified. The three fastest growing occupations in the country are 1) biomedical engineers; 2) network systems and data communications analysts; and 3) home health aides. Medical scientists come in at #6 and biochemists at #9. All of these are in the STEM fields. Community colleges train students to help fill these jobs.
Secondly, we are in the midst of what some experts call the sixth mass extinction. Dozens of species are going extinct every day. Freeman Tilden borrowed the following statement from a United States NPS manual: “Through interpretation, understanding; through understanding, appreciation; through appreciation, protection.” If students don’t go into science fields, then who will we have working on conservation issues?
I believe one of the best ways for community colleges to recruit more STEM students is to create undergraduate research programs. With barriers such as lack of funding and high teaching loads, designing a program can be challenging. However, a research program could simply mean creating separate courses that focus solely on research projects, starting summer field seasons, or just incorporating projects into already existing classes. We have chosen to implement all of these strategies.
As a science department, our purpose is to teach and allow our students to actually do science. At the community college level, we do a really good job of training other students for the workforce. Why not apply this method to science students, especially those in the college transfer programs. Let’s give them the tools to be scientists.
There are three simple objectives that help us stay within our purpose as we construct assignments/projects. First of all, we want our students to understand and utilize scientific principles. These include, but are not limited to, the following: formulating questions developing hypotheses, making reasonable predictions, and conducting appropriate tests. Secondly, we believe our students should conduct sufficient and appropriate scientific research and adequately document that research. If our purpose is to teach students how to do science, we need to teach students how to research well. Finally, we need to teach students how to communicate science. To engage and win the public, you have to effectively communicate.
If we, as a nation, are going to be successful at placing students into STEM-related fields and training the next generation of scientists, community colleges (and high schools, for that matter) will have to play a huge role. If you find lots of barriers in the way, start small. Who knows what kind of impact being involved in one original research project will have on one student.