Austin Community College geology professor Bob Blodgett has taught in almost every kind of academic environment. A former faculty member at both a research university and a liberal arts college, he spent his senior year of high school and college summers teaching elementary and middle school students at the Cranbrook Institute of Science, a natural history museum near Detroit. "When I was barely a kid, I was teaching kids," he says.
After a detour working for the Texas state public drinking-water program, he decided that he missed teaching, so in 1995, he took a full-time job at Austin Community College, a public, 2-year college in Texas. In addition to his teaching load, he's working on the second edition of a textbook about natural disasters. He is also assembling a long-term water-monitoring project that will provide a service for the state and a research resource for his students. Looking back on his experience at 4-year schools, Blodgett sees the 2-year college as a better fit. In those other jobs, he says, "I didn't have the balanced, healthy life that I do now."
Community colleges can provide satisfying careers for scientists who love teaching and are willing to work with students of varying ages, backgrounds, and educational experiences. Within their heavy teaching loads, community college faculty members implement innovative teaching strategies, pursue special projects, and even do research if they choose--and if they can find the time. Although the work can be challenging, the rewards can be tremendous.
Fully focused on teaching
Community colleges generally offer 2-year associate's degrees, introductory-level courses that are recognized by larger universities, and technical and special-needs courses, such as English as a second language classes . Nursing and other health sciences training and basic computer courses are some of the most popular core programs. More than 80% are public institutions, and they typically require a high school diploma or a GED for admission.
"Many students are not ready for prime time," Blodgett says. "Classes are such a mix, of students right out of high school [and] students older than me, in their late 60s." He notes that he teaches many more students with learning and physical disabilities than he did at a 4-year college. Immigrant students facing language and cultural barriers are another part of the mix, adds Paris Svoronos, chair of the chemistry department at Queensborough Community College in Bayside, New York.
The real challenge, then, is working with a classroom of students with diverse backgrounds, strengths, and weaknesses. "Teaching at a community college is not lecturing; it's more hands-on. You have to do a lot more work as a teacher, because students are not nearly as prepared," says Michaeleen Lee, a chemistry professor at Bucks County Community College in Newtown, Pennsylvania.
Such hands-on teaching can include, for example, using group problem-solving exercises or having students answer questions at the blackboard. Visual props can help: Amy Rice Doetsch, who's on the biology faculty at the College of Southern Idaho (CSI) in Twin Falls, uses superballs to represent protons and tennis balls to represent electrons when describing electron transport in cells.
Full-time community college faculty members often are expected to spend 20 hours a week with students in classes, labs, and during office hours. They usually teach several sections of various broad-based introductory courses to 25 or so students at a time, and the grading load is heavy.
Science departments at community colleges typically prefer candidates with a Ph.D., but candidates with a master's degree and teaching experience can also find opportunities. Amy Rice Doetsch took a full-time faculty position at CSI after completing her Ph.D. at Indiana University, Bloomington, in 2004. Her husband Alex was still writing his dissertation but also wanted a teaching career. CSI offered him a full-time position the following fall. Some colleges have a tenure system that mirrors that of 4-year colleges and universities, but many 2-year colleges hire their faculty on extended contracts. Average salaries, not including summer pay, for full-time community college faculty in all disciplines are nearly $53,000, according to a 2006-07 survey.
Obtaining a full-time position at a community college can be difficult at first, particularly for people working in large metropolitan areas, Lee says. Full-time positions are competitive, and a significant percentage of classes are taught by part-time faculty members. In those cases, prospective faculty members often need to cobble together adjunct assignments from a variety of schools while they wait for a permanent position to open up. Full-time positions tend to be more common at community colleges in rural areas, where there are often fewer additional career opportunities for scientists--and therefore fewer people who can serve as adjunct lecturers.
Because of the need to give a variety of students a general science education, a community college's resources and facilities typically are dedicated to classroom-based teaching and laboratory courses. Although independent research is not usually part of a community college education, many such institutions do have some research funding. And just as faculty members need to be creative with their teaching methods, they must also find creative ways to stretch the available funds and come up with innovative ideas for funding projects.
At CSI, an NSF grant to enhance biotechnology education in Idaho has allowed Amy Rice Doetsch and Alex Doetsch to update teaching laboratories and bring in outside speakers. "We've purchased laptop computers and most recently a fluorescence microscope," Amy Rice Doetsch says. "We're just trying to get our students' feet wet in modern biology. Hopefully, they'll get excited and move on" to further biology training.
At Queensborough Community College, Svoronos started a chemistry undergraduate research program from scratch. The program began with one student in 2000; today, 38 students pursue undergraduate research in the chemistry department, rivaling programs at some 4-year colleges. In the last 5 years, Queensborough chemistry students and faculty members have published six peer-reviewed journal articles.
Svoronos now uses his introductory chemistry courses to identify students with exceptional interest and abilities and funnel them into an honors program that includes research courses.
But there are practical challenges: During the semester, all of Queensborough's lab space is devoted to teaching labs, so students must work on independent research projects after hours, on weekends, or at times when classes are not in session. A recent $255,000 Perkins grant will allow the department to build lab space devoted to undergraduate research.
Getting what you ask for
Blodgett found the money for his water-monitoring project by making a lot of phone calls and asking for what he wanted. In 1998, Blodgett and a former student arranged for Alcoa to drill a well on campus. Initially, they hoped to generate interest in geology and acquire some rock cores for students to examine in class.
But Blodgett really wanted to set up a real-time monitoring well at the Edwards aquifer, a major source of Texas drinking water in the Austin-San Antonio region. His idea was to set up a Web site so that the public could view the level of the aquifer at any time. "So I told the people when they came over from Alcoa what my dream was," he says, "and then they said, 'Well, write up a proposal and get it to us by Monday for management.' "
To Blodgett's surprise, Alcoa's management agreed to donate the drilling. Since then, Blodgett has called on a variety of companies and state agencies for equipment and assistance in finishing the project. Then, the college chipped in with a 70-meter teaching facility to go on top of the well. The project is nearing completion, and Blodgett expects the public to be able to use the monitoring-well Web site by fall 2007.
Rewards of teaching
What drives many community college faculty members is knowing they have made a lasting impact on their students. "Every once in a while, you get a student who has never really taken biology and hasn't really thought about it," says Amy Rice Doetsch. "But [sometimes] they get really excited about it and end up taking more classes. Helping nontraditional students explore new ideas makes the hard work worthwhile, she says.
Other faculty members mention the notes and phone calls they receive from students telling how they've influenced their students' lives. A couple of years ago, Lee of Bucks County Community College got an e-mail from a former student who, after graduating from Bucks County, went on to get her Ph.D. and to work in government. She was planning to leave her current job and wondered about opportunities to teach. Lee was able to tell her former student how much she's enjoyed the more than 30 years that she's worked as a community college chemistry instructor.
Knowing you play a role in the lives of students like these makes the job worthwhile, Lee says: "I wouldn't do anything else."
Sarah Webb has a Ph.D. in bioorganic chemistry. She writes from Brooklyn, New York.
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