Importance of Undergraduate Research at Community Colleges

Teaching Political Science at a Community College: Resource Set One

Terry L. Gilmour, Midlands College

Much has been written about the importance of undergraduate students doing research.  Nearly 40 percent of UC Davis undergraduates participate in research activities.  They explain some of the benefits. One, it gives students the opportunity to explore different career opportunities.  For many, their experiences helped solidify the direction of their degrees.  Second, they learn transferable skills and how to build their resumes.  These skills include time management, professional communication and motivation.  Third, by sharing their research, they learn to advocate and defend their research.  Fourth, undergraduate research prepares them for graduate school.  Many students do not even realize that they are leaning toward graduate school until participating in research as an undergraduate.  Finally, they are adding to the scholarship of learning to make their own contributions (Easley 2017).

It is accepted that research helps one to become familiar with the basic concepts and literature in their given field.  But it also allows students to gain an understanding of research methodology and the scientific process.  The Survey of Undergraduate Research Experiences reported that students benefited from the research experience through (1) understanding the research process, (2) understanding how scientists work on problems, (3) learning lab techniques, (4) developing skills in the interpretation of results, (5) having the ability to analyze date, and (6) having the ability to integrate theory and practice.  Additionally, outside of academia, they (1) learned tolerance for obstacles, (2) learned to work independently, (3) understood how knowledge is constructed, (4) learned self-confidence, (5) understood that assertions require supporting evidence, and (6) gained clarity for their personal career path (Petrella and Jung 2008).

The problem facing community colleges is the perceived lack of an undergraduate research culture.  The Community College Undergraduate Research Initiative (CCURI) has identified barriers and suggested solutions to remedy this situation (Hewlett 2018).  The perception is that community colleges have limited financial resources, limited student and faculty preparation, and limited administrative support, to name a few.  However, it is also possible that there is more research taking place than we actually know because community college students are not being asked about undergraduate research.  CCURI believes that this bias against community colleges is built into the system.  

From the Community College Survey of Student Engagement administered in 2022, there are indicators that these students are certainly capable of doing undergraduate research.  Although students were not asked directly about research, there are several important indicators.  Over half of the students surveyed answered that they often or very often (1) worked harder than they thought to meet instructor’s standards, (2) analyzed the elements of idea, experience or theory, (3) formed new ideas and understood various pieces of information, (3) made judgments about the value or soundness of information, arguments, or methods, (4) applied theories or concepts to practical problems or in new situation, and (5) used information they read or heard to perform a new skill.  Over fifteen percent were writing between 11-20 papers per year and over ten percent were writing more than 20 papers per year.  These numbers certainly tell us that students are being prepared to do undergraduate research in meaningful ways at the community college level.  

While much undergraduate research has occurred in the STEM fields, the American Political Science Association has recognized the value of bringing different institutions together to create new ties between the faculty at those institutions to share best practices and produce new teaching materials.  The Peer to Peer Pedagogical Partnership grants can help faculty at community colleges create relationships with the four-year institutions and work together to prepare our students when they transfer.  This would be especially important in the area of undergraduate research.  

At my own institution, a small community college in rural West Texas, we are encouraging students to do undergraduate research.  While our colleagues in the STEM field got a head start on us, we are gaining ground in the social sciences.  Through a generous grant from a local donor, our college holds the West Texas History Symposium annually.  There is a call for papers and those selected are often published in the peer-reviewed West Texas Journal of History.  When I became Director of the Honors Program on our campus, I partnered with the history department to mentor a student to prepare a paper for the symposium.  This has been a successful venture for the past five years. While it is a history symposium, the student and I work to bring a political aspect into the paper.  Last April, my student presented a paper on the clash between historic preservation and politics in the Duranguito neighborhood in El Paso, Texas. This allows students to leave our two-year college with a publication.  A few years back, two students were able to present their research at the Southwest Political Science Association annual meeting.  We have also created a poster session that is open to the attendants (and the entire community is invited to the symposium) where students present their research and a panel of judge visit with each student where they must present their findings.   Students not only learn valuable research skills, but also must make an oral presentation.  What I have also found is that when students have the opportunity to work individually with their professors, there is a sense of belonging and empowerment often missing for community college students.

I know that there are many community college faculty that are working hard to encourage students to do undergraduate research in political science.  We just need to continue to publicize this fact and offer more encouragement.  From this symposium, there were a couple of amazing ideas/projects that were discussed that I want to highlight.  

For instance, Veronica Reyna at Houston Community College partnered with various organizations and students took part in the 2020 Census – this is hands-on research!

Josue Franco at Cuyumaca College created a Civil Grand Jury Lab, an undergraduate student research lab allowing students to research California’s 58 county civil grand juries using formal modeling, qualitative analysis, and quantitative analysis.

After two plus years of a pandemic and while our organization is assessing the future of the political science major, it is imperative that we do our best at the community college level to prepare our students for the next phase of their academic journey.  It is my belief that encouraging undergraduate research is a key to their success.


Ashford, Ellie  2019.  “Research experiences have major benefits.”  Community College Daily Community College Undergraduate Research Initiative.  CCURI.

Easley, Julia Ann.  1017.  “5 Reasons Why Undergraduates Should Do Research.”

Hewlett, James A.  2018.  “Broadening Participation in Undergraduate Research Experiences (    UREs):  The Expanding Role of the Community College.”  Life Sciences Education. 17:es9, 1-3. 

Paris, Susan.  2018.  “Two-year college students can benefit from research projects.”  Community College Daily.

Petrelle, John K. and Alan P Jung.  2008.  “Undergraduate Research:  Importance, Benefits, and Challenges.”  International Journal of Exercise Science. 1(3):91-95.

Return to the Teaching Political Science at a Community College 


Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

Political Science Today

Follow Us

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x
Scroll to Top