Getting into Hot Water: High-Impact Projects Provide Early Undergraduate Students With High-Level STEM Skills

Suzanne M. (Suki) Smaglik, Central Wyoming College

In little more than a decade, the undergraduate research program at Central Wyoming College (CWC) has grown from one student, one instructor, to five instructors and five to ten students each year. Maintaining a culture of undergraduate research has become an objective in our institutional strategic plan. Because I had the opportunity to do undergraduate research in my early years, I knew the importance of this type of experience for my students. CWC is a low-income, at-risk, minority- serving institution, which means most of our students only see scientists on TV and have a hard time seeing themselves in that profession. I wanted to empower our students with the opportunity to work on a research project. With financial support from small ($5K-$25K) grants through the Wyoming Space Grant Consortium (WSGC), Wyoming Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR/NSF), Wyoming Institutional Development Awards (IDeA) Network of Biomedical Research Excellence (INBRE /NIH) and the Community College Research Initiative (CCURI/NSF), we have been able to support our students as research interns, taking them to present their work at conferences, both local and national. Participation in research projects has huge impacts on 2YC students, who go on into the STEM pipeline with skills and knowledge that their four-year counterparts may lack.

While I have several disparate research projects ongoing, this article focuses on the thermophile habitat and genetic diversity of a local hot spring. As a lone ranger at CWC, I knew that I would have to reach out to other geoscientists in order to gain anything close to the community that exists at larger four-year/graduate institutions. I took any opportunity I could to learn as much about my new "neighborhood" as possible. The thermophile project began after I was introduced to microbial research in nearby Yellowstone National Park during a Chautauqua field course.

I had been trained as a hard-rock geochemist, and microbial ecology was far from my expertise. Curiosity and a willing student led to applying for funding from the WSGC for a reconnaissance mission to Thermopolis. And into the fray we went. Our first project was to map out the nature of the mats and their relation to the hot water source. Mapping. I can do that. Water chemistry. Check. Now we're onto something. We even threw in a bit of microbiology and tried to extract DNA from these little buggers. There's a reason that they survive under extreme conditions!

Six months later we still didn't have anything. It wasn't until this student became the first INBRE transfer-scholar at the university, receiving full tuition for two years to complete his BS and a rotation through graduate-level research labs, that we learned how to extract DNA from extremophiles. Without this "backward" collaboration, we would have moved forward at a much slower pace. One of the ongoing benefits of research is to tap into a growing network of expertise from which my students and I can both learn.

A few years ago, CWC became part of the CCURI. They have provided much needed equipment, funding for genetic sequencing, and travel to conferences and training workshops. CCURI's mission is to bring authentic research experiences into the biology (or other STEM) classroom. With their help, we have been able to take this research beyond the simple questions. We've since added units in bioinformatics and geophysical methods to the project.

We now use this research as a project in our sophomore-level geology course on Earth systems. In lieu of a final exam, all students (whether as small teams or individuals) are required to present their research at the Wyoming Undergraduate Research Day held at the University of Wyoming (UW). The UW students present senior theses and engineering capstones; our freshman and sophomores present graduate-quality work. Some of us have taken these same students to present their work at national conferences. In other words, our students have a better opportunity, earlier, with us, than if they had gone straight to the university.

These research opportunities are powerful experiences for students and faculty. Lessons learned over the years include:

  1. You never know where ideas will come from, always be ready to think about how something could be twisted into a possible research experience for your students.
  2. Keeping it local helps with logistics.
  3. Standards don't need to be lowered, but learning experiences need to be well scaffolded so that they can get to that high level of expertise.
  4. Publications may not always be the final result, but going public is still an important part of the learning experience.
  5. By creating an undergraduate research culture on campus, you can make a difference for many students.


For more information about this activity and about thermophilic microorganisms, visit:

Microbial Life - Educational Resources