Can Community Colleges Really Make a Difference?

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?


“Interpretation” in Classrooms

Even though it was June, the combination of the wind and the setting sun kept the temperature around 40° F. We were standing up on a hill looking over a large swath of sage called the Lamar Valley. I’ll never forget when it happened. Every living thing we had observed that evening had been wonderful, but they would not compare to the drama that was about to unfold. Sandhill cranes were standing along the river to the south, pronghorn and bison were scattered throughout, and a pair of bald eagles were perched high in a nearby cottonwood. Suddenly, we heard a lone wolf howl from the north. This single howl was soon followed by multiple howls from the south. This was the Druid wolf pack which, at that time, controlled most of the northern range of Yellowstone National Park. They were communicating! They soon came into view and continued howling. I saw the eyes of my students light up with excitement. One student, Devin, said softly, “This is the best day of my life!” This surreal moment set the stage for the rest of our time in Yellowstone. All of the students enjoyed themselves and learned a lot, but Devin stayed fully engaged as we hiked through and discussed geothermal features, took DBH measurements of aspen trees, inventoried birds in Hayden Valley, and observed other predator/prey interactions through our scope. Devin asked lots of questions, he listened to lots of answers, and he set up and performed experiments of his own. Is it possible that at the instant that Devin heard the wolf howls, he became a scientist?