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.



A small and quiet revolution
Community colleges serve diverse student bodies and include large pools of nontraditional students with the desire and talent to succeed in science. To increase the likelihood that these students will succeed in science, technology, engineering and math disciplines, opportunities to participate in undergraduate research early in their academic careers must be made available. These students should not have to wait until their junior and senior years to make the research connection.

Fortunately, there is a small and quiet revolution going on at community colleges across the country. Supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation, the Council for Undergraduate Research and the National Council of Institutional Administrators are conducting workshops at community colleges to develop a culture of undergraduate scientific research (5). There are many documented benefits for students who participate in undergraduate research, including enhanced abilities for critical thinking and problem solving as well as a deeper understanding of science (6).

The report, titled “Undergraduate Research at Community Colleges,” characterizes four categories of research activities conducted in STEM at community colleges (8):

  1. 1. incorporating research into the curriculum, which might include requiring students to conduct literature reviews or build hypotheses;
  2. 2. eliminating cookbook labs and replacing them with research activities;
  3. 3. conducting applied research at the community college; and
  4. 4. conducting basic research at the community college or partnering with four-year faculty members and conducting research at those institutions.

A mixed bag of results
Several years ago, I was the recipient of a Bridges to the Future grant from the National Institutes of Health. Students partnered with faculty mentors from a four-year university, and each student conducted a yearlong research project. Their projects culminated in poster presentations at the annual meeting of the Virginia Academy of Science.

While all of the students who participated ended up transferring to four-year institutions upon completion of their associate’s degrees, not all of them were successful. As others have discovered, there are many barriers to student success in STEM, and this is particularly true for community-college students (7). They tend to be older, have strong personal commitments outside of college and often have to work full-time jobs to sustain their families. Often community-college students are not ready or able to make the time commitment required for full-blown research projects (7). Success can be measured on different levels, however, and several of the participants in my program went on to work in research laboratories. One was accepted into medical school, and still another became a teacher.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that the science and engineering work force’s growth will exceed the growth of all other sectors (8). Meanwhile, the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education reported that community college enrollment increased 375 percent in 30 years and is quickly becoming the single largest segment in higher education due to increases in tuition and stricter admission requirements at four-year institutions, increasing numbers of high-school graduates, and increasing enrollments of low-income and minority students (9).

Community college is the logical recruiting ground for new talent, especially among individuals underrepresented in the STEM disciplines. These students are going to transfer into your classes. I urge you to reach out to community-college science faculty members and potential transfer students; help them develop a culture for undergraduate research.


  1. 1. 
  2. 2. Cejda, Brent D., et al. Community College Review, 26(3), 1 – 14 (1998).
  3. 3. House, J. D. Journal of College Student Development, 30, 144 – 147 (1989).
  4. 4. Keeley, E., and House, J. D. Paper presented at the Annual Forum of the Association for Institutional Research, Chicago (1993).
  5. 5. Council on Undergraduate Research, Developing Undergraduate Research at Community Colleges: Tapping the Potential of All Students.
  6. 6. Sadler, T. D., and L.L, McKinney. Journal of College Science Teaching, 39(5), 68 – 74 (2010).
  7. 7.  
  8. 8. National Academy of Sciences (US), National Academy of Engineering (US), and Institute of Medicine (US) Committee on Underrepresented Groups and the Expansion of the Science and Engineering Workforce Pipeline (2011).
  9. 9.  

education_authorDeborah L. Neely-Fisher ( is an assistant professor of biology at J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College.

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