May 2012

Reach out to your community college colleagues and students

Your participation will help develop a culture of undergraduate research

I have been teaching at a Virginia community college for about 16 years, which is not surprising, because I began my academic journey at a junior college. In between, I attended two different universities in Virginia and somehow managed to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees in biology, which enabled me to move into the teaching position I now hold.

First and foremost, I attended a junior college due to an insufficient high-school record — through no fault of my high school teachers, I should add. Like so many other students who attend community college, I needed the extra time to mature, the smaller class sizes for academic support and the cheaper tuition.

With the help of professors whose primary focus was teaching, I was able to succeed in developmental and introductory-level science courses. Because the professors had no requirement to do research, they often were available to answer questions and were willing to tutor me. During my two years at junior college, I excelled beyond my parents’ wildest dreams and was inducted into Phi Theta Kappa. Afterward, I applied to and was accepted by the university of my choosing.

Unfortunately, my transfer experience was typical: With 300 to 500 students per class, my first year proved extremely frustrating. Professors were polite but distant, and even the graduate-student teaching assistants were pretty aloof. I struggled for a quarter or two, my grade point average took a nosedive and then, toward the end of the year, I began to recover. Although I had survived the year academically, I moved home when the year was up and applied to a university within commuting distance. Later, as a community-college professor, I would learn that I had suffered from what is known as transfer shock.

A common experience
Transfer shock is well documented. Transfer students’ GPAs commonly drop several tenths of a point or more, causing those students to doubt their abilities to be successful at the new institution (1). Although some studies indicate that transfer shock for math and science majors results in statistically significant declines in GPAs (2), you might be surprised to learn that, in general, transfer students do outperform incoming freshmen and native juniors, and they also achieve higher graduation rates (3). Studies by Keeley and House, in fact, indicate that students who earn associate degrees before transferring show continued improvements in GPA and graduate in higher proportions than those who transfer before completing their degrees (4).

The science courses I took through my junior year were not that much different at any of the colleges I attended. They were almost all focused on memorizing content and utilizing cookbook laboratories. (And please remember that this was 38 years ago.) The connection between content knowledge in science and research was not introduced until I started taking upper-level courses. After spending three-and-a-half years studying biology, I knew nothing of the process of scientific research or the career paths of scientists. I know that in the past two decades attitudes and policies have improved concerning undergraduate research, but, unfortunately, the trend continues to be slower in community college science departments.



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Love this article! I am a college student very interested in research. I graduate next week with a AA Biotechnology/Transfer degree. I have not worked in quite a while as a chemical lab technician due to economy. There are no biotech jobs in my area. I do not qualify for financial aid and have paid as I go for my AA over a 4 yr period. I desire a BS in biotech research , but have no funds. Are there any scholarships that you know of? I have a 3.82 GPA and belong to PTK, Phi Theta Kappa, national community college honor society. I also served on the SGA as a Membership Officer at my community college in Salisbury, NC. Thank you for any advice. Lisa Stiller



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