November 22, 2019

Day 2 – Community College Undergraduate Research Experience (URE) Summit 2019

Posted by Laura Guertin

This post is part of a collection of blog posts I made from the Community College Undergraduate Research Experience (URE) Summit, held in Washington DC from November 20-22, 2019. Be sure to also check out Day 1 and Day 3.


Day 2 of the Community College Undergraduate Research Experience (URE) Summit was a full day with an incredible amount of sharing, reflection, and reporting. The morning started with a talk by James Hewlett, the Executive Director of the Community College Undergraduate Research Initiative (CCURI). Titled Broadening Participation in UREs: The Expanding Role of the Community College, James started right away with a significant challenge – we really don’t know the impact of a URE on a community college student. There are a handful on publications he suggested we could explore, such as the Linn et al. (2015) article in Science, CUR’s publication Investing in Impact, and CCURI’s publication Redefine, Reinvent, Reinvigorate. But since we all work differently with undergraduate students, the spectral structure of the experience limits meta analysis.

Along with a discussion on assessment of UREs comes a discussion of the barriers for student participation. The top three reasons faculty state as barriers include time, money, and space. But James reminded us that these are faculty-centered reasons. We need to consider the student restrictions, which include financial aid, credit limits for registration, and a lack of assistance from faculty and administration in navigating this process.

So there has to be a culture change, and it starts by addressing these research questions:

Slide from James Hewlett presentation

As we move forward, James left us with a quote: “Innovation isn’t a strategy. Innovative is a quality used to describe actions, some of which will fail.” When it comes to UREs at community colleges, we need innovative approaches. We need action. And we should expect failure along the way as we institutionalize undergraduate research for all students (interestingly, CUR’s 9th biennial Conference theme was Undergraduate Research For All, back in 2002).

Next up was a showcase of student video vignettes, submitted by institutions at the summit. Another set of vignettes were shown later in the day, and we have one final set tomorrow. This is an example of one of the videos we viewed, where Philadelphia’s Wistar Institute showcases students in the labs preparing for a career in biomedical sciences. (Sorry to see there wasn’t an Earth or space science video shared with the group. And if all of our undergraduate research programs could have videos such as this!)

The last morning activity addressed Expanding the Impact of the Practice of UREs on Students, Faculty, and Two-Year Institutions. There were multiple tables assigned to discuss four prompts focused on student impact, faculty impact, or institutional impact. These 2+ hour conversations resulted in a collection of key points and a final synthesis that were then collected by the summit organizers for compilation. To give you an example of what we discussed, I facilitated one of the student impact tables, and these were our four questions:

  • What are the most important benefits that students receive by participating in UREs?
  • What are the most important opportunities for students participating in UREs? Barriers?
  • What is the short-term as well as long-term impact of students’ learning and skill development by participating in UREs?
  • What are the common lessons learned across URE types regarding students’ outcomes and successes?

At the end of this morning session, we went around the room and had each table share one compelling idea that came out of our discussions. Our “ah-ha” moment came from one of the undergraduate student researchers in our group. She voiced that she really wished there were more individual URE opportunities for students that can’t do a full summer REU. Suddenly, our group entered into a lively discussion about calling something a URE versus a REU. The acronym REU (Research Experiences for Undergraduates) puts the “research” first and the “student” last, where as URE (Undergraduate Research Experience) puts the “student” first. Shouldn’t we be making the student primary and the research secondary? Don’t we want this pedagogy of engagement to be human-centric, to be inclusive, equitable, personalized, and holistic? We wrapped up the conversation with a consensus that the acronym REU implies that students are plug-ins to the process, whereas a URE is where research is plugged in.

The afternoon had us breaking into new groups to discuss new topics connecting to undergraduate research experiences – Scaling and Sustaining, Partnering, Equitable Access for STEM, and Measuring Impact/Continuous Improvement. For three hours, the groups again responded to prompts, and I was a facilitator for the Equitable Access for STEM table. These were the questions we addressed, with a reminder that “nontraditional students in STEM includes population groups such as, but not limited to, women, underrepresented minorities, veterans, rural students, students with disabilities, and students from low-socioeconomic backgrounds.”

  • Ensuring Far Greater Access: How do we ensure that more students have access to UREs at community colleges, especially those that are traditionally underrepresented in STEM disciplines?
  • URE Pathways and Retention: What pathways should institutions consider in order to engage and retain traditionally underrepresented students in STEM URE experiences? What are the major challenges to overcome to retain students during and after a URE?
  • Designing for Student Needs: How do we design UREs in STEM disciplines to meet the full range of underrepresented students’ needs?
  • Ensuring Benefits for Students: Beyond access for these students, how do we ensure that underrepresented students in STEM disciplines benefit from their URE experiences? What are the unique factors or dimensions of UREs that impact the student learning experience?

So where to we go from here? The summit organizers spent the evening compiling all of the notes from the day, which will frame our discussions for the final gathering of the group in the morning. Looking forward to seeing what we do with all of these amazing ideas and insights!