Science 299 – A Successful Model for Capstone Research in Science at Piedmont Virginia Community College

Science 299

Winner – Improving Student Success – Institutional

Team Members

Joanna Vondrasek – Piedmont Virginia
Larry Tiezzi – Piedmont Virginia
Barbara Heyl – Piedmont Virginia
John Walsh – Piedmont Virginia
Anne Allison – Piedmont Virginia
Jennifer Scott – Piedmont Virginia
Kathy Hudson – Piedmont Virginia
Frances Rees – Piedmont Virginia
Marlena Yost – Piedmont Virginia
Yanna Goddard – Piedmont Virginia
Ed Funck – Piedmont Virginia


The American Association for the Advancement of Science strongly recommends that students be exposed to authentic research experiences early in their undergraduate careers as a way to promote achievement and persistence in science. This is often seen as a laudable but difficult goal at community colleges, where constraints on faculty time, facilities and student preparedness can limit research feasibility. Piedmont Virginia Community College has developed a model in which all of our students enrolled in the A.S. in Physical & Natural Science degree conduct a semester-long, faculty-mentored research project. The two-credit research course serves as a capstone project that fulfills the following student learning outcomes: 1) students will conduct hands-on scientific research and 2) students will synthesize the content of their science courses and create new knowledge. One faculty member carries teaching credit for the course and conducts organizational meetings. Additional full-time science faculty mentor 1-3 students per semester in their discipline. Students plan and conduct research and then communicate their findings at an end-of-semester poster session open to the wider college community. Since the program’s formal implementation in 2009, our students have successfully engaged the college community with scientific research, presented their findings at national meetings, collaborated with community and university partners, and made new contributions to science.

Connection to VCCS Mission & Complete 2021

Two of the stated priorities of Complete 2021 are: 1) providing educational access for all Virginians and 2) reinventing the way community colleges help students succeed. Our capstone research course accomplishes both of these goals. The literature suggests that early exposure to undergraduate research opportunities increases students’ likelihood of pursuing STEM careers and advanced degrees. Conducting original research at PVCC allows our students, many of whom are first-generation college students, older students, and students from historically underrepresented minorities, the opportunity to create new knowledge and to experience both the successes and challenges of scientific research. Many of our students transfer to research universities, where research opportunities are available for highly motivated, confident, well-connected students. Former students have indicated that the capstone project gave them the confidence and experience both to choose a science major after transfer and to actively pursue research opportunities at their transfer institution. Also, the capstone project has led several geology students directly to summer jobs or internships. In these ways, our capstone science project provides access to opportunity for a wide array of Virginians, and helps students succeed by leveraging our focus on the first two years of college to provide opportunities not widely available for underclassman at larger institutions.

Applicability Across Disciplines, Units, & Institutions

A program review in 2005 indicated a need to document student learning in the science degree. The capstone course grew out of that need and provides a platform on which our students can demonstrate an understanding of the scientific process. All VCCS schools could implement a similar capstone research project for their science students. With faculty commitment and administrative support, these projects can be done inexpensively and with minimal alteration to the normal flow of labs in the sciences. The 299 course numbers for the physical and natural sciences (Biology, Chemistry, Geology, Physics) are already in the VCCS catalog. Individual schools would need to restructure their degree requirements to make room for the science 299 credits and evaluate which administrative model would work for their institution. Undergraduate research is by no means restricted to the sciences. All academic disciplines could offer students a capstone experience through a directed project. The nature of the projects would vary with academic discipline, but providing a capstone experience would benefit all students and allow them to create new knowledge, art, or technology, early in their academic careers while simultaneously developing organizational and presentation skills. Such capstone experiences would be additional ways to attract talented students and faculty to the VCCS schools.

Creative Nature of Project & Connection to Educational Practices

Independent research projects for undergraduate students are common at small, selective colleges that produce a disproportionate number of professional scientists. We can leverage our focus on the first two years of college to provide opportunities not widely available for underclassman at larger institutions. Two recent projects capture the power of these capstone experiences. A geology student discovered a new fossil at Sherando Lake, a fossil not known to the scientific community at that location. She presented her research in the spring of 2015 at PVCC, consulted with experts regarding the age of the fossil and its uniqueness, submitted a proposal to the Geological Society of America, and this fall was the only community college student presenter at the GSA conference. At the conference she was recruited to the geology programs of several universities by faculty impressed with her polished presentation. A physics student designed and built a bicycle water pump for a local public school garden. He tested the pumping capacity of the bicycle, installed it at the school and helped the students run the pump, thereby deepening the connections between the local public schools and PVCC. By providing opportunities for student-designed research at an open-access community college, we are providing a much larger cross-section of students the demonstrated benefits of this educational model.

Value Over Time

The Science 299 capstone course and its place in the A.S. in Physical and Natural Science degree is the focal point of science education at PVCC. Preliminary data show high levels of success for students who complete Science 299. Eighty-four percent of students (n=41) who took Science 299 from 2012-2015 successfully graduated and/or transferred to 4-year schools, and 73% of science graduates (27/37) transferred after graduation. The capstone course is the public face of our science programs, through the twice-a-year poster session where students and faculty share their excitement and energy with the rest of the college and community. It allows faculty from different scientific disciplines to work together, strengthening the overall integrity of our science curriculum. It allows science students to see the connections between the various science courses they have completed. Its value will persist over time. While specific research project themes will likely change as new discoveries are made and projects are adapted to the changing interests of our students, faculty, and community, the essential nature and value of the research experience will continue to provide dividends to current and former students for the foreseeable future.