Participants research STEM as they prepare to transition to four-year institutions
The Research Experience for Community College Students, or RECCS (pronounced Rex), is a paid summer research internship program at the University of Colorado Boulder open to all Colorado community college students. RECCS gives community college students an authentic research experience where they explore environmental or geosciences and gain the confidence to transition to a four-year program in the STEM disciplines. A CIRES (Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences) program, it was initiated by former faculty member and current Regent At-Large Lesley Smith.
RECCS students receive a weekly stipend of $600 to conduct field- or lab-based independent research over a nine-week period in the summer while working with a team of scientists, explained Alicia Christensen, program manager for program. They learn basic research, writing and communication skills, and they present their research at a local student science symposium.
“It has been running since 2014,” Christensen said. “We work with a variety of community colleges across Colorado, both in the Denver Metro area and also rural Colorado to bring community college students to campus and connect them with research mentors here at CU.”
In addition to the scientific endeavors undertaken by students, RECCS participants glean a wealth of experience through the program.
“Some of the professional development we did was around identity and science identity and what it’s like to come into the science culture at a four-year university,” Christensen said. “They were very brave in terms in being vulnerable and talking about some really tough subjects. In the end, I think these students are continuing to hang out and talk to each other after this experience.”
The typical cohort is about 10 students, she said. However, this past summer RECCS had 18 students. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the U.S. Geological Survey and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Education have been instrumental in external pairings.
“(Students) work on a variety of research topics related to atmospheric sciences, climate change, air quality and pollution,” Christensen said. “We also have a variety of students who will do more field-based experiences and ecology based projects.”
Students also participate in a professional development workshop through the summer with the help of program staff and some CU Boulder graduate students, she said.
“That’s really focused around helping the students understand how to synthesize the research that they’re doing into a scientific poster and also a formal conference presentation,” Christensen said. “They learn the skills required to communicate their science to a more general audience than those that are specific to their disciplines.”
Christensen said another aspect of the program that is imperative and unique is the importance of introducing racially and ethnically diverse students going into the sciences. “It is because it’s hard for them to feel welcome. And these programs, especially those focused around community college students, tend to be more ethnically and racially diverse,” she said.
Anne Gold, director of this year’s education outreach program, shared a sampling of how the program has changed these students’ lives.
“Prudence Crawmer was a student maybe four years ago. She came in and really felt like she really wanted to do science. She was a massage therapist before and had that as a career and then went to college because she was interested in sciences,” Gold said. Kramer was paired with a mentor in the student research lab who also works with the Crowdmag Geomagnetic software app, and became interested in doing a magnetic field map of the Earth. “And she then went to AGU, the American Geophysical Union conference in San Francisco. And she won the student poster prize there for her presentation and was brought back for a presentation the next year.”
Marianne Blackburn, a student from the first cohort, was matched with a research scientist who was at the U.S. Geological Survey at the time doing a wildfire research.
“Marianne also had some health background. Her goal was to do something in the medical field, but then she got so excited about wildfire and succession after wildfires that she continued working with the mentor and then did her masters in the field,” Gold said. She’s now in the Ph.D. program and has presented at conferences.
Students participate in an end of summer poster session in conjunction with other Research Experience for Undergrads (REU) programs on campus or at University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR).
With the pandemic, the poster session was held virtually.
“We use Topia, which allows students to have their own kind of avatars and walk around and walk up to people’s posters and listen to their talks, to their posters, et cetera,” Christensen said. “It’s like an actual poster session at a conference, but in a virtual world. Students were able to invite friends, family and their research mentors. They received feedback from people who signed up to be evaluators for their posters as well.” Students did their formal presentations the last day of the program via Zoom and Facebook Live.
Regent Smith’s role and support as one of the founding PIs of the RECCS program was critical, Gold said. She was assistant director at CIRES the time.
“She ran the initial programs together with me in the very beginning, and then we brought in additional support,” Gold said. “She was instrumental in institutionalizing the program within CIRES and supporting the students and has been terrific in really building also strong personal connections with students.”
Gold said the program has also been hosting sessions and writing book chapters and contributing in other ways such as trainings for evaluation.
“Our program definitely has certain spins and we are very proud of when we all learn from each other,” Gold said. “There’s lots of ideas from us that are getting picked up by others and we pick up some other ideas and it’s definitely true that having community college students on the radar as a target audience is becoming more and more important across the nation.”
During a typical summer, students from seven community colleges take part. After completing the program, many go on to four-year colleges.
“Many ended up attending CU Denver, especially those that live in the Denver area,” Christensen said. “But we do have students that also attend CU Boulder and students will also go on to attend Metro, CSU (and) Colorado School of Mines.”
Interested community college students can go to the RECCS website, which has information on how to fill out and submit the application, she said. The program also works with the Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation.
“One of the biggest things I think we always hear from students is wow, like this research is so much different than how I ever thought research happened and how science happened,” Christensen said. “In addition to that, they get a, a strong sense of belonging with other cohort members to the scientific community.”