STEMULATE at UC San Diego: Customizing Research Opportunities for Community College Students in STEM

By: Valeria Rodriguez & Beto Vasquez

As an educational research center, UC San Diego’s Center for Research on Educational Equity, Assessment, and Teaching Excellence, better known as CREATE, is committed to increasing equitable educational opportunities for students and educators alike. At CREATE, we pride ourselves in the work we do with students, staff, and faculty across the K-20 spectrum. Although we foster a culture of collaboration with faculty and community members to help infuse equity into their grant and research goals, we also specialize in developing various programs and initiatives that support areas of literacy, math, and science.

The STEM Undergraduate Learning and Teaching Empowerment (STEMULATE) summer research experience program is one such example. Research Experience for Undergraduates, or REUs, are typically immersive 8-10 week programs in which universities host students to conduct science-related research with faculty members during the course of the summer. STEMULATE was designed for community college students, providing them the opportunity to participate in either an academic research experience or a STEM-related work internship. Coupling our Center’s comprehensive understanding of student needs with the technical expertise of science research and industry exposure, the STEMULATE-REU provided a well-rounded, rich experience for program participants.

Who We Served

STEMULATE was made possible thanks to the generous support provided by the San Diego Foundation. The program provided a paid, immersive experience for thirteen students from seven of the nine community colleges throughout San Diego and Imperial Counties. Participants were a diverse group of students ranging from 20-42 years of age, most of which had never participated in research programs. Approximately, two-thirds of the group were women and the majority (86%) were from minoritized backgrounds –groups that are underrepresented in STEM degrees and careers (NSF NCSES, 2021). Although the program focuses on providing hands-on opportunities to those who could benefit most, we are also mindful of the importance of providing compensation as there are usually financial factors that prevent students from participating. Such considerations and financial support are important as they help ameliorate the challenges that could keep students from participating in meaningful experiences. After all, aside from environmental and physical needs that might prevent students from participating in a multi-week summer program, our students shared that they had never applied for such opportunities, stating that they never knew such programs existed, “doubt[ed] in [their] abilities”, or never saw themselves “as a good candidate”. 

As part of the program, students were required to conduct STEM outreach (via events, tutoring, and community service) in an effort to learn the importance of ‘being of service’ and giving back to their communities. Additionally, participants were also supported with a virtual community that provided support via weekly meetings and personal, academic, and professional workshops to help them increase science identity and become great candidates for similar future opportunities. These weekly meetings and activities were incorporated into the program to encourage a team-building culture and a safe space where participants could support one another. Furthermore, in an effort to promote confidence, improve public speaking skills, and interpersonal communication, students presented to each other at the end of the program symposium, sharing summer research projects and overall program experience. Students also received assistance from postdoctoral scientists to prepare a personal statement for future scholarship and transfer applications.

Program Impact 

Research has indicated that research experiences increase the likelihood that students will persist in their STEM education and careers (Russell et al., 2007; Eagan et al., 2013; Linn, Palmer, Baranger, Gerard, & Stone, 2015; Thoman et al., 2017). At the start of our program, 50% of STEMULATE participants did not consider themselves knowledgeable about finding internship opportunities in their respective majors while 43% of participants were unaware of the different career opportunities in their respective majors. At the end of our program, participants shared that they felt more comfortable with themselves as STEM students, encouraged in their science identity, and knowledgeable about their respective majors. Consequently, after participating in the summer program, 92% of participants felt more knowledgeable about finding internships in their respective majors and more confident about networking with STEM professionals. Jennifer Osuna, a transfer student from Imperial Valley College who will begin UC Riverside in the Fall, felt that this program has given her the opportunity to grow as an individual. She stated, “This program has helped me see that I am capable of doing more than I thought. It has helped me gain more confidence in myself and help me build relationships.” Like Jennifer,  most participants expressed having a sense of confidence in their contribution to science, possessing qualities to be successful in STEM, growing awareness of different careers/professions in STEM, and seeing themselves as good candidates for other summer research programs.

Our STEMULATE participants have all overcome challenges and adversities that have shaped their lives personally, professionally, and academically. Some of these students have worked hard to be  the first in their families to attend college; others have enrolled in higher education at an older age, realizing that they wanted to create a positive impact in the world and in turn be a role model to their families and communities. Katherine Hidalgo,  a community college student from Mira Costa College and a single parent, has learned the importance of balancing personal and academic goals while creating a positive impact on her son through perseverance and determination. Another student from North County San Diego also shared about their family responsibilities, including caring for their younger siblings after their parents’ deportation. 

Community college is a major avenue for underrepresented racial minorities (URM) to access universities. Transfer student acclimation can be stymied by a number of challenges, including differences among higher education institutions (college/university size and location; semester vs. quarter schedules academic expectations); the enrollment/matriculation process (admissions, financial aid, registration); and a lack of academic advising (Wetzel & Debure, 2018). Additionally, personal and cultural expectations or challenges (such as first-generation, minority, or low socioeconomic status) may create barriers that can impact student performance and decrease students’ overall sense of belonging and validation (Hurtado et al., 1996). Although this year’s STEMULATE-REU participants have a variety of life experiences and stories that are unique, it is their desire to invest in their futures that connected them. They were an extraordinary group of students with a tremendous aptitude and passion for the sciences. During the course of the summer, students were able to learn how to combat the imposter syndrome that often impacts minoritized students and bolster their identities in STEM. Additionally, students learned technical skills such as rudimentary lab tasks (making solutions/buffers, operating special equipment, etc.) loading and running gel electrophoresis, PCR, DNA/protein extractions, western blots, core sample analysis, pipetting, computer programming, acoustic analysis, and overall familiarity with lab protocols! One faculty member was so impressed with their student’s performance that they offered to keep the student on through the academic year.

It is essential that we continue to strive for more research experience programs like this (specifically for community college students) in order to increase the diversity and inclusion of underrepresented college students. Unfortunately, STEMULATE was a one-year funded program for underrepresented community college students across San Diego County. Additionally, there were challenges in identifying industry sites that could accommodate students with STEM workforce interest.  However, the positive impact created is undeniable: the sense of belonging, networking, and skills obtained through research programs show the importance of helping bridge the gap of access between 2-year and 4-year undergraduate students.  As Karla Garcia, a fellow STEMULATE participant stated after completing the program, “I learned more efficient ways of searching and reading scientific papers. I also gained confidence in my choice of career path by not only getting to experience a little bit of what research is like but getting to hear other people’s experiences in the field as well. I feel more qualified and prepared to apply to other REUs in the future.” It is vital that we continue to collaborate with our local community colleges and partners in an effort to better prepare future four-year students for success.