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February 11, 2014

Dozens of first- and second-year students at Anoka-Ramsey Community College have been conducting research for state and national projects as part of a college initiative to infuse scientific research opportunities into the curriculum, an activity typically reserved for advanced undergraduate and graduate students.

 

On Feb. 26, two students, Kelsie Becklin and Geri Mortenson, will represent a selection of various undergraduate research projects at Anoka-Ramsey for legislators at the State Capitol in St. Paul. In the last year, Anoka-Ramsey students in biology, field biology, genetics, microbiology and other courses have been:  

  • Assessing the influence of landscape structure on Minnesota frogs and toads in collaboration with 10 other colleges and universities and the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis in Santa Barbara, Calif.
  • Collecting blood, fecal matter and hair from wolves and wolf-coyote hybrids at the Wildlife Science Center in Columbus, Minn. and sequencing wolf and microbe genes to investigate a connection between susceptibility to disease and physical characteristics.
  • Growing test plots of camelina, a distant relative to canola that offers a promising new possibility for producing biofuels from nonfood sources.
  • Assessing the water quality of local streams and lakes and sharing their data with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, where it will be used in a statewide watershed assessment.

“If we have students taking science courses, we might as well teach them to become scientists,” said Kristen Genet, a biology instructor involved with Anoka-Ramsey’s undergraduate research initiative. Though the students’ research will advance scientific knowledge in their respective subjects, Genet said, the initiative’s main purpose is to enhance student learning.

“Students tend to retain information more readily and value the knowledge more highly when they are engaged in research projects than if they learned something out of a book,” she said. “They’re discovering things and troubleshooting along the way and that’s really what the process of science is all about.”

For students, the experiences have been unusual, to say the least.  Anissa Bekka learned how to draw blood from a sedated wolf, a skill necessary for a field biologist. “I had never stuck anything with a needle before, and I was nervous,” she said in reporting on her part of the project to classmates.

“The average first- or second-year undergraduate student is not going to have a chance to do what our students have been able to do with the wolf project,” said Jennifer Braido, who teaches the field biology students. “Our students learn how to capture the wolves, chemically immobilize them, perform physical exams and administer vaccinations. They learn how to work with a wild animal in a safe, captive environment. These students are getting the same training as the top wolf researchers in the world have done. It’s a real authentic experience.”

Students also will present their findings at national conferences. Later this month, Becklin and Mortenson, along with Lindsay Molinaro and Dillon Danforth will present their findings of the wolf and biofuels projects at the Community College Undergraduate Research Initiative symposium in Mesa, Ariz. Also, Molinaro will present her wolf project data in April at the National Council for Undergraduate Research conference in Lexington, Ky. And in April, a student, yet to be determined, will represent the college at a national data analysis workshop in Santa Barbara, Calif. for the amphibian landscape ecology project.

Funding for expanding the research opportunities to students has come mostly from National Science Foundation grants awarded to collaborations and other outside sources. 

“Students tell us they love the hands-on experience and get a clearer picture about what it is like to be a scientist,” Genet said. “Not all our students will become scientists, but they will have a better understanding and appreciation of the scientific discovery. In addition to our biology courses, we’re hoping to integrate research experiences throughout the college.”