Research is booming at Minnesota’s community colleges

More sophisticated than you’d expect (Courtesy Jennifer Braido / Anoka-Ramsey Community College)
  1. Listen Research is booming at Minnesota’s community colleges

Student research is booming where you might not expect it – Minnesota’s two-year community colleges.

Once known as places that taught only introductory science courses, they’re conducting research with a level of sophistication that faculty members say wasn’t seen as recently as five years ago.

The surge is part of a national movement that faculty say is caused by more federal funding, more sophisticated faculty and a growing realization that students need hands-on science education earlier in college.

“It’s definitely a growing trend, and a trend we want to embrace,” said Minnesota State University – Mankato biology professor and research mentor Marilyn Hart, who teaches on the campus of North Hennepin Community College.

A look through a sampling of current research projects reveals topics not readily explored in the standard introductory textbooks:

  • “Identification of the Wolf Intestinal Microbiota to Investigate Susceptibility to Disease” by students Kelsie Becklin and Geri Mortenson of Anoka-Ramsey Community College.
  • “Photooxidation of DNA and its Prevention by Natural Antioxidants” by Alison Seemann of Rochester Community and Technical College.
  • “Metal-Resistant Bacteria and its Application in Bioremediation” by Shequaya Broadus, Saris Ahmed and Michael Skinner of Minneapolis Community and Technical College.
Hey, legislators: Check out our work (MPR Photo / Alex Friedrich)

Such work is not to be confused with the canned experiments done in class year after year.

“We’re not doing cookie-cutter lab activities where you go in there, and the end result is already known,” said Kelsie Becklin, the Anoka-Ramsey sophomore from Elk River doing the wolf research. “This is something where when we went into it, we didn’t know if it’s actually going to work.”

The students use advanced techniques — such as extracting DNA — and work with advanced equipment.

In essence, it’s the stuff one associates with a university — not a two-year campus.

Carrying out such projects is still unusual. Even students conducting the experiments said before they enrolled they had no idea their colleges did such research.

And Hart said student researchers tend to be the exceptional students rather than the norm, although some instructors make it a habit of using research to light a fire in those with average grades.

Craig Longtine, a North Hennepin Community College biology instructor who has helped develop community-college research nationally, says high-end research began to sprout in Minnesota around 2007.

Since then, he estimated, it has spread to about a quarter of the community colleges in the state.

Research leaders at the state and national level say several factors appear to be driving the trend:

  • Faculty. Many community-college instructors have traditionally held master’s degrees. But the market has been flooded with Ph.Ds, instructors say, so colleges are hiring more and more faculty with research backgrounds — and who want to introduce students to real research.
  • Industry. Employers are looking for these kinds of research skills.
  • Funding. The National Science Foundation, which is a major source of federal research funding, has seen the benefit of starting research earlier in students’ careesr. In 2009, it began devoting more than $3 million to grants just to foster community-college research.
  • Academic need. Community colleges see that a lot of universities are beefing up their undergraduate research programs. “If [community college students] don’t have undergraduate research experiences at the community college,” Longtine said, “they are not competitive for positions when they get to the four-year university. That means they’re not competitive for medical school and graduate school to the degree that students would be had they had that experience”

Although some of the research happens as part of a course project, Hart and other instructors said the “vast majority” of the projects happen outside of class.

Faculty often recruit interested students for a project, but students may go to instructors themselves.

Ahmed (MPR Photo / Alex Friedrich)

One of them is Saris Ahmed, a 21-year-old South Minneapolis sophomore who approached MCTC faculty mentor Renu Kumar for his group’s research project on bacteria.

He said he has worked on the project for several hours a week for the past year — for no academic credit.

“It’s just really exciting to be a part of,” he said. “To get all the extra experience in the lab, self-directed, putting in the work and trying to figure out the direction of a project — that’s a really rare experience.”

Most students have already taken an introductory biology or chemistry course first — so they tend to know the basics.

But after that, much of it amounts to on-the-job training; they learn techniques under the guidance of faculty.

“We encourage students to come up with an idea, even if they don’t know all the science behind it,” said Rekha Ganaganur, a faculty mentor in chemistry and biotechnology at Minneapolis Community and Technical College. “It is that creative thinking that’s encouraged. Once they come up with the idea, then we channel them to learn all the science behind it. So their enthusiasm is not curtailed just because they haven’t taken enough courses.”

Neither are equipment or resources the obstacles one might expect.

Tamara Mans, a Minnesota State University – Moorhead professor who also teaches at North Hennepin, says community college lab facilities has come a long way in the last decade or so.

“In our Biology 101 labs, the students here are using pretty much the latest equipment,” she said. “It’s not doing them a service to send them out into the world using 50-year-old equipment. [Community colleges] are really updating their labs.”

That said, some instructors are also applying for grants, asking their schools to buy extra equipment, or getting help from universities.

In North Hennepin’s case, it will have some dedicated research space in a $26 million science building scheduled to open this fall.

Becklin and coresearcher Geri Mortenson (MPR Photo / Alex Friedrich)

Mans and her colleagues say other colleges will have to make undergraduate research a priority if it’s ever to become mainstream. That requires the support of administrators as well as more funding — from both the campus and federal research officials.

Hart said, “We have to make this more accessible” to the average student.

Still, several Minnesota instructors say the research has already raised the level of science teaching at their colleges.
The sophistication of the classwork and the equipment, they say, is rising.

And faculty are making learning more hands-on — which students love.

“In 10 years, you’re not going to be too surprised to see undergraduate research at the community college,” Mans said.