Jessica Ghent has had an eventful summer.
As part of a nine-week research internship at CU Boulder, the Front Range Community College student is studying the topography of Colorado’s Mount Princeton to find the ideal placement for ground control points, which are physical markers that drones can follow to create a digital map of the area.
Ghent will use the drone images to make a 3D digital elevation model of the area to understand how to help prevent debris flows, which are fast-moving masses of rock that can destroy towns and homes in a matter of minutes.
She wants to find out how debris flows start and how to improve early-warning systems in the future.
Ghent is one of 11 students participating in the Research Experience for Community College Students (RECCS) program hosted by the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES).
Now entering its fifth year, RECCS gives Colorado community college students hands-on research opportunities as they look ahead in their careers.
“The RECCS program is amazing, and it’s so beneficial,” Ghent said. “We all go into something lacking confidence and feel like we don’t know enough, but it’s cool to be around a lot of different people with science backgrounds and learn more about things that you wouldn’t have necessarily come into contact with.”
Sean Will, a student at the Community College of Denver, is studying beaver habitats by looking at water properties and soil permeability to study how this might affect droughts. The research will help reveal whether beaver dams can efficiently manage a limited water supply.
“The research experience is very valuable, not just if I continue on with the research career track, but even if I go back into business or something, I can take a lot of the skills from the RECCS program,” Will said.
RECCS Director Anne Gold and Program Manager Renee Curry Minaya say the program teaches community college students valuable skills that will help them in their careers.
“Being part of a professional research group gives a lot of skills: multitasking, organization, professionalism, interpersonal professional communication skills and how to set goals realistically and work towards them,” Gold said.
Students are assigned a research question to answer on their own while they work alongside their faculty mentors to answer big picture research questions. At the end of the program, they present their findings to their peers, their mentors and the general public.
With RECCS funded for two more years via the National Science Foundation, Gold and Curry plan to continue expanding the program’s reach.
“We are trying to reach more rural community colleges, because for them, the lack of access to resources is even stronger than Front Range community colleges,” Gold said.
Their efforts are already beginning to push past the Front Range. Susannah Rozak, a member of this year’s RECCS class from Pikes Peak Community College in Colorado Springs, has always been passionate about research and the program has been a perfect way to expand her knowledge.
“There’s so much about the world that we don’t know yet and so being able to take part in finding things out and discovering things and sharing those discoveries is really fun,” said Rozak, who is studying student engagement in climate change. “I feel like RECCS has helped me grow a lot and be more confident.”
Ghent hopes to transfer to CU Boulder in the fall, possibly continuing her research into debris flows under her faculty mentors.
“I’ve gained experience in really tangible ways that I’ll be able to take to my future career,” Ghent said.