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Two-Year Community

Building Engagement in STEM Through Career Courses at Two-Year Institutions

Journal of College Science Teaching—November/December 2019 (Volume 49, Issue 2)

By Jamie Pawloski and Patrick Shabram

Community colleges enroll almost half of U.S. undergraduates and were predicted to produce 12% of the workforce for STEM professions in 2018. Half of these students are the first in their families to attend college and therefore are more likely unfamiliar with the steps required to transfer to four-year universities or internship programs. Geo-Launchpad, a program funded by the NSF, was developed with these students in mind and works to expose students to internships and research opportunities that promote postsecondary education or workforce employment in the geosciences. Geo-Launchpad developed a careers course as one tier of a three-tiered programmatic approach; GEO 210: Careers/Research in the Geosciences aims to introduce students to current research, tools, techniques, internship opportunities, professions, and transfer programs in the geosciences. This report analyzes 2 years of external evaluations to question if benchmarks were met in reaching the program’s goals. Early results support success in completing the program’s goals. Students completing the careers course show interest in pursuing geoscience-driven internship and transfer programs. The program decreases the pressure of application processes, unfamiliarity with professional research, and difficulty accessing self-strengths. 


Community colleges provide an essential stepping stone for a large range of demographics. Enrolling 35% of undergraduates and having enrolled 49% of bachelor’s recipients, community colleges develop the skills to craft scientists, engineers, doctors, scientific literates, and technicians (Ginder, Kelly-Reid, & Mann, 2019; National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, 2017). According to a report of U.S. students in 1999 and 2000 by Tsapogas (2004), half of baccalaureate science and engineering graduates and one third of master’s recipients had enrolled at a community college. By the year 2018, it was predicted that 12.3% of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) jobs would be held by associate degree holders (Carnevale, Smith, & Strohl, 2017). For the one half of students who are first generation, the concept of and requirements for transferring to a four-year college are foreign (Gardner, 1996). Preparing community college students to transfer to four-year colleges and/or the workforce is essential, as these students are predicted to represent large percentages of the upcoming workforce.

Career course as part of Geo-Launchpad

Front Range Community College, established in 1968, is the largest of 13 community colleges in the Colorado Community College System, with a collegewide unduplicated headcount for the 2018 fiscal year of 28,140 students. The college is the largest source of transfer students to the University of Colorado Boulder, Colorado State University, and Metropolitan State University of Denver. As of the 2018 academic year, 30.5% of students were self-reported minorities or of two or more races (with 5.7% unreported), and 46.9 of students were first-generation college students. Over 33% of 2018 graduates received an associates degree in a STEM-related discipline. Most students from the Larimer Campus, where the careers course was tested, transfer to Colorado State University or the University of Northern Colorado.

A 2015 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) funded a project to address career familiarity and professional experience as a mechanism for improving interest, participation, and preparation for a STEM-focused career, especially for nontraditional or underrepresented groups of students. Titled Geo-Launchpad, the grant includes an internship program cosponsored by UNAVCO, the NSF geodetic facility, along with opportunities for mentor development, collegewide seminars, and the development of a careers course. GEO 275: Exploration of Internships/Careers in the Geosciences was piloted in 2016 and was later renamed and adopted by the curriculum committee as GEO 210: Careers/Research in the Geosciences. The course was then approved by the state’s Faculty Curriculum Committee for inclusion in the Community College Common Course Numbering System (CCNS). The one-unit course is now available for adoption by community colleges statewide and is currently offered every spring semester at the grant’s collaborative 2-year institution.

The goals of the course are as follows: 1.Introduce students to current research, research tools, techniques, and terminology in the geosciences 2.Explore and prepare community college students for outside internship opportunities in the geosciences and related disciplines. 3.Explore different professions in the geosciences. 4.Explain various coursework needed to achieve success at specific 4-year universities and careers beyond graduation. 5.Provide experience preparing resumes and completing internship and job applications. 6.Develop writing and critical analysis skills of scientific papers.

The course objectives and format were developed through informal conversations and a formal meeting of statewide community college faculty, as well as from discussions with industry professionals. The objectives were then presented to staff at UNAVCO and the Cooperative Institute for Research in the Environmental Sciences (CIRES) personnel at the University of Colorado Boulder. Both of these institutions have experience working with college students, academics, and industry professionals within the geosciences. The experience of the principal investigator’s work in private industry prior to his career in academia also helped establish certain course elements. A seminar format was selected to provide active learning for students and to mirror similar professional development programs at both UNAVCO and CIRES.

The intent behind including curriculum development as part of Geo-Launchpad was threefold. A pilot internship in 2015 (after the proposal was submitted, but before the grant was awarded) confirmed that many first- and second-year students were not adequately aware of the requirements for working in a professional, science-related setting, as evidenced by preinternship surveys of participating interns. Applicant reviewers also noted that many students had put off taking math courses that may have helped make them better qualified to gain experience working in a professional setting. The pilot resulted in the continuation of a career information program offered throughout the UNAVCO internship and cemented the idea that the grant’s collaborative two-year institution should move forward with course development. Second, a limited number of students would be accepted into the UNAVCO internship. As the intent of Geo-Launchpad is to increase participation and diversity in the STEM workforce, a careers course was seen as a way to expand the reach of the program. Finally, the careers course was seen as a way to address concerns about academic preparedness. Many students, for example, may choose to or be advised to put off a college algebra course for a later semester, potentially making them ineligible for the Geo-Launchpad internship through UNAVCO, as well as Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REUs) offered at CIRES and other institutions. Many REUs require successful completion of a college algebra course. Addressing this requirement, especially with first-year students enrolled in the careers course, might offer a vehicle for students early in their academic careers to take the courses required to be eligible.

Given that the course is offered in the spring, every section begins with an emphasis on summer internship opportunities, including the qualifications required, deadlines, and a review of resume and CV development. The course then explores the types of careers available within the geosciences through using literature from trade organizations, inviting guests, and hosting field trips to work environments to witness a sampling of the kind of work conducted. In every instance, guest speakers are asked to share how they achieved their position. The course then moves into a review of research in the geosciences, including a review of academic journals and nonacademic literature (every student has to present on a recent study). Finally, the course explores transfer options at local universities, including the related majors available at each and the academic guidelines specific to each student’s planned field of study.

The course is designed to be small, with class size limited to 15 students, although the largest section to date had only five students. Over the four semesters in which the course has run, a total of 18 students have enrolled and completed the course: five in 2016, four in 2017, four in 2018, and five in 2019. The course has featured field trips to UNAVCO and guest speakers, including staff members from the Research Experiences for Community College Students (RECCS) internship program through CIRES, a retired hydrologist formerly with the USGS, former RECCS and UNAVCO interns, and three geographers and a geologist from local four-year institutions. Student success was tracked and feedback gathered for the 2016 course, but only the 2017 and 2018 courses were formally assessed for the effectiveness of the course objectives. Postsurveying of previously piloted careers courses confirms community college students’ lack of confidence in their choice of internship programs, career paths of interest, or knowledge of how to pursue a career in their chosen field. Casner-Lotto and Barrington’s (2006) Workforce Readiness Report Card reports the deficiencies two-year graduates had in the areas of written communication, self-direction, and critical thinking and problem solving. Many students are not aware of their personal strengths. Students make rushed career decisions driven by anxiety caused by family members and peers (Freeman, 2012). Data from the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University suggests that less than half of college graduates possess a job matching their education and skill sets (as cited in Rogers, 2017). Careers courses are designed with the anxious student in mind. Students gain confidence in their path through self-regulated learning assignments. Bastedo, Batkhuyag, Prates, and Prytula (2009) reported that 62% of employed college and university graduates have participated in some form of internship. Allowing students to research different internship and employment options under the guidance and expertise of the instructor and supporting classmates before submitting applications may better prepare students in their choices as they pursue their career goals.

Previous career course successes

The success of careers courses has been documented and evaluated. The Collegiate Employment Research Institute (CERI) recommends the Recruiting Trends Survey for insight on relationships between partner organizations for internship programs and higher education institutions (CERI, 2013, 2015). From the perspective of the employer, the survey suggests students lack skills in constructing successful resumes and cover letters, interviewing, and negotiating salaries (CERI, 2015). Studies of career courses by Nardo (1999), Letourneau (2002), and Dammionger et al. (2007) all reported increased competency in the career search process, application submission, personal growth, and development (as cited in Raphael, 2005). Freeman (2012) described the experience of a student participating in a careers course: “The assignments are exciting and stimulating, as they relate directly to the student’s future.” Careers courses stabilize and focus students on paths of study.

A study performed by PLP Research suggested that 85% of all paid internship opportunities are not advertised (as cited in Rogers, 2017). Promotion of internships at two-year institutions is an essential route to a student’s awareness of the available opportunities and their associated benefits. Internships demonstrate to prospective employers the steps the graduate has taken toward increasing their productivity. Additionally, internship participation is associated with a 10% greater increase in pay during the 10 quarters after graduation compared with nonparticipants (Rogers, 2017). The National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) reported in 2012 that 64% of college seniors had participated in an internship or co-op program (Koc, Koncz, & Longenberger, 2012) compared with the 2.7% average of 1980s bachelor’s degree students (Coco, 2000). Participation in an internship program provides a student with a necessary competitive edge in employment.

Evaluation methods

Students were surveyed to gauge career awareness and preparedness to begin searching for career opportunities. Data were collected to highlight the program accomplishments, not necessarily to present the data as a scientific study due to the small sample size. Data were collected using a modified version of the Undergraduate Research Student Self-Assessment (URSSA) instrument (Hunter, Weston, Thiry, & Laursen, 2009). The URSSA was developed with funding from the NSF to assess students’ personal, professional, and intellectual outcomes from participating in undergraduate research and professional development opportunities. The survey items are rated on a 5-point Likert scale. Survey scales include networking/collaboration, intellectual gains, scientific communication, organizational skills, technical skills, career knowledge, and career preparation. Surveys were administered at the beginning and the end of the course. Surveys were sent to students’ e-mails through SurveyMonkey. E-mail reminders were sent twice every 4 days to students who had not responded. Every student completed the survey.

The quantitative data were organized in Microsoft Excel spreadsheets where descriptive statistics were computed. Frequencies and means are reported for most of the items. Groups of items were clustered into scales to assess student outcomes in a given domain. The average of the individual items that comprise each scale was computed for the scale mean. Items were rated on a 5-point scale. Tests of statistical significance, such as t-tests or one-way analysis of variance, were not conducted because of the small sample of participants.

Write-in responses to open-ended survey questions were entered into NVivo qualitative analysis software. There were four open-ended questions asked in the 2017 and 2018 survey cohort covering the students’ current career plans, how the course influenced those plans, the most important thing learned from the course, and how the course could be improved. The qualitative data was analyzed using domain analysis (Spradley, 1980). To develop the analytic framework for coding, each transcript was searched for information supporting a completed benchmark toward fulfilling the program’s goals (i.e., an increase in geoscience career knowledge or confidence within the geoscience field). Codes were developed both deductively—based on themes from the research questions—and inductively—based on emerging or unanticipated themes in the data. Groups of codes that cluster around particular concepts were grouped within domains, such as knowledge of geoscience career options or interest in geoscience careers. A taxonomic analysis revealed subcodes within the larger domains. For example, codes of “lack of geoscience career awareness,” and “some geoscience career awareness,” and “understanding of the breadth of geoscience careers” were created within the larger domain of “geoscience career knowledge” to represent the range of students’ career awareness.

The study utilized two data collection methods: Likert-scale and open-ended response survey questions to acquire a more accurate picture of student outcomes and to enhance the validity of the research. In this way, students’ quantitative and qualitative responses could be compared to see if they were consistent and to construct a more accurate understanding of student outcomes. Triangulation of these different data collection methods and data sources enhanced validity and reliability in our findings (Denzin, 1989). Reliability of the data was tested by collecting data annually. Each iteration yielded comparable data and findings about student outcomes. Reliability was also enhanced by an external researcher conducting the study and comparing results between current and former student participants (Goetz & LeCompte, 1984). Although a single researcher collected and analyzed data, internal reliability and validity of the study was enhanced through member checks with participants to see if researcher hypotheses matched students’ actual experiences and outcomes (Creswell, 1998).

Eight students enrolled in the GEO 210 course in spring 2017 and 2018. Their demographic information is as follows: five male, three female. Five identify as White, one as White/African-American/Native American, one as Latina, and one as Persian. All plan to receive an AA or AS degree: four in geography, one in natural resources/geography, one in anthropology, one in environmental science, and one in geology.


One early indicator of the success of the course is that in the 2016 course, four of the five students applied to the UNAVCO, RECCS and other internship opportunities, with three receiving four offers (one student was accepted into both internships). After evaluation in 2017, with a total sample size of four students, every student noted value in the exploration of careers within the geosciences and challenging thinking strategies throughout the course. In 2018, two of the students applied for internships, with one student receiving offers to three different opportunities. That same student indicated that she would not have applied for internships if not for taking the course. Students also reported significant gains in technical instrumentation, organization, career preparation, and communication skills.

The greatest survey gains were made in the sector of career knowledge. By the end of the course, students gained a stronger understanding of the career and internship options available in their field. Notably, students made the largest gains in understanding the skills necessary for a geoscience career, with the survey mean rising from 3.5 to 4.5 on a 5-point scale (Figure 1).

GEO 210 gains in career knowledge, item means (merged 2017–2018). Adopted from External Evaluation of the Geo-Launchpad Internship Program (<a class="bibr" href="#JCST_09_B20">Thiry, 2017</a>, <a class="bibr" href="#JCST_09_B22">2018</a>).

GEO 210 gains in career knowledge, item means (merged 2017–2018). Adopted from External Evaluation of the Geo-Launchpad Internship Program (Thiry, 2017, 2018).

Students made strong gains in preparing themselves professionally for a geoscience career. More specifically, students reported an increased understanding of how to develop a resume/CV for a career in the geosciences, with survey results rising from a 3 to a 4.25 on a 5-point scale by the end of the semester (Figure 2). Open-ended survey responses to the question, “How did this course influence your career or educational plans?” further support an increase in knowledge of career opportunities and skills. The responses included statements such as “[the course] opened up some pathways of knowledge about the geosciences and potential career opportunities I am interested in pursuing” and “the course helped me understand requirements and abilities I would possibly need to pursue a geoscience career.”

GEO 210 career preparation, item means (merged 2017–2018). Adopted from External Evaluation of the Geo-Launchpad Internship Program (<a class="bibr" href="#JCST_09_B20">Thiry, 2017</a>, <a class="bibr" href="#JCST_09_B21">2018</a>).

GEO 210 career preparation, item means (merged 2017–2018). Adopted from External Evaluation of the Geo-Launchpad Internship Program (Thiry, 2017, 2018).

Throughout the GEO 210 course, students gained an understanding of scientific communication, specifically analyzing, reading, and developing scientific writing. Students learned to delineate scientific writing from other genres. The highest gain was reported in writing a scientific report, with a mean increase from 2.75 to 4 on a 5-point scale (Figure 3). Students reported feeling more confident in analyzing a scientific paper by the end of the course. Most notably, students felt more confident in pursuing and understanding how to pursue a geoscience-related path by the end of the course. Free response survey responses to the question “How did this course influence your career or educational plans?” included “[the course] solidified my interest in the geosciences” and “I definitely want to pursue a career in the Geosciences.”

GEO 210 gains in scientific communication skills, item means (merged 2017–2018). Adopted from External Evaluation of the Geo-Launchpad Internship Program (Thiry, 2017, 2018)

GEO 210 gains in scientific communication skills, item means (merged 2017–2018). Adopted from External Evaluation of the Geo-Launchpad Internship Program (Thiry, 2017, 2018)

Of the 18 students participating in the course, nine are known to have applied during the course for internships at both UNAVCO and other REUs, and six have received at least one offer for a summer internship. A pattern of successful transfer to four-year colleges in geoscience-related majors has also emerged. One student from the 2016 course, for example, transferred to a local four-year university, completing a degree in geography in 2018, and is currently planning to attend graduate school. Another student from that same cohort transferred to another local university, graduated in the fall of 2018 with a degree in ecosystem science and sustainability and is currently enrolled at the same institution as a graduate student. One student from the 2017 course who also participated in the Geo-Launchpad internship has transferred to a local university for a degree in geography with a GIS emphasis.

Challenges and next steps

The Geo-Launchpad team faces several challenges in recruiting participants, both in the seminar and internship programs as well as in expanding the careers course beyond the community of the grant’s collaborative two-year institution. The pool of candidates appears to be building within the internship, with candidates coming from a wider cross-section of the state’s community colleges. Yet, as interest in the internship grows throughout the state, the course has not been adopted at other colleges, although it is available in the CCNS. This may be partly due to the course-adoption process and the fact that many schedules are created one or two years in advance. The Geo-Launchpad team is currently collaborating with other statewide community colleges interested in adding the course into their curriculum, with the hope that the course will begin to appear at other colleges within the next couple of years. Recruiting course participants is challenging because of the lack of awareness students have in understanding its application toward a wide range of STEM disciplines. Further, GEO 210 is not guaranteed to transfer to public universities in Colorado. Therefore, students may not be able to gain credits that will work toward a four-year college degree. Working with community college students is a challenge in and of itself. Perna (2010) recognized that “a high proportion of students are already both working and learning.” In response, Rogers (2017) noted that “usually these two activities are competing with rather than complementing one another for a student’s time and attention.”

Efforts are being made to encourage greater participation. Communication between four-year colleges and the Geo-Launchpad team is underway to establish how GEO 210 credits may transfer. Further, promotion in geoscience-related courses was tested in the fall 2017 semester and continued into the fall of 2018. Ongoing improvements to the course also are being made based on student feedback. Specifically, students have recommended a seminar on graduate schools, more information about geoscience programs at additional universities, and more visits from local four-year university faculty and geoscience professionals. The interest in graduate school was especially encouraging, considering that students enrolled in the course were at the freshman and sophomore levels.


GEO 210 proved to be a successful initiative by increasing students’ career knowledge, career preparedness, and scientific communication skills within the geosciences. The resources provided to students to promote applications to internships, information on transferring, and professional development programs appear to be encouraging students to take the next steps toward careers in the geosciences. The course helped students narrow down the areas in which they want to work and opened up pathways of knowledge toward the geosciences and potential career opportunities.


This study was supported by National Science Foundation Grant No. 1540588 and Grant No. 1540524. 

Jamie Pawloski ( was a biology instructor at Front Range Community College in Fort Collins, Colorado, at the time this paper was written; she is currently a lab support technician at Growcentia, Inc., in Fort Collins. Patrick Shabram ( is a geography professor at Front Range Community College, Larimer Campus.   


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