The National Science Foundation has awarded Finger Lakes Community College a $133,000 grant to sponsor a national conference assessing the use of research to teach science at community colleges.
About 90 representatives of community colleges across the country will attend the conference, to be held in Bethesda, Md., March 21-24. Attendees will discuss barriers, real and perceived as they have implemented research into their teaching, as opposed to “cookbook” laboratory exercises in which there is a pre-determined result.
“Switching to a research model is not easy in a community college environment, but it is a more effective way to teach,” said Beth VanWinkle, project director of the Community College Undergraduate Research Initiative (CCURI), based at FLCC.
CCURI got its start at FLCC in 2008. A $500,000 National Science Foundation (NSF) grant enabled FLCC professor James Hewlett to help a handful of other community colleges adopt FLCC’s model for using research as a teaching tool.
The successful project resulted in another National Science Foundation grant in 2011 for $3.35 million to take the initiative national. In 2012, FLCC and its original partner colleges held conferences in Austin, Charleston, Phoenix, Portland and Minneapolis to initiate strategic plans for community college faculty to introduce research into coursework.
“The additional grant for a conference in March is a vote of confidence from the National Science Foundation. It allows us to get our partners across the country together to assess their progress, introduce the research initiative to at least 20 more community colleges and report our findings to the undergraduate research community at large,” VanWinkle said.
The grant was awarded under a new NSF program called WIDER, which stands for Widening Implementation Demonstration of Evidence-based Reform. FLCC was one of 30 organizations nationwide, out of 414 that applied, to receive funding. Collaborators with Hewlett on this new grant are John Van Niel, FLCC professor of environmental conservation and horticulture; James R. Jacob of Tompkins-Cortland Community College; Virginia L. Balke of Delaware Technical and Community College; and Jacqueline M. Crisman of Jamestown Community College.
“When students ask questions and are involved in developing methods to find the answers, they are constructing their own knowledge base. Students who participate in research take ownership for their own learning, instead of just doing lab exercises. If we make learning more engaging, we can attract and keep students in the sciences,” VanWinkle said. “Our model works across disciplines and should not be thought of as exclusive to science.”
For example, FLCC students have analyzed DNA from local red-tailed hawks for segments that distinguish males from females. Hewlett says his students retained more about DNA from this project than those who took a general biology course. He also found that students who take part in research courses are more likely to transfer into science programs at four-year colleges and continue on to graduate school.
Research, however, requires preparation time, careful planning to fit within a semester, equipment and student buy-in, to spend extra time and effort. “The goal of the CCURI regional conferences and this national one in March is to help colleges overcome these startup challenges,” VanWinkle said. “We will include best practice sessions in March where faculty, administrators and students share their experiences.”
A local CCURI collaborator, Montgomery College, will host a student poster session to highlight what students have done this year.
|John Van Niel|