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Gaston College SPARC3

Gaston College (GC) is a state-supported, open-door, comprehensive community college serving Gaston and Lincoln counties in North Carolina, as part of the 58 institution North Carolina Community College System (NCCCS).  Gaston College’s vision is to “be viewed as the premier post-secondary educational resource in the region.” The college serves approximately 23,000 students each year through its degree, diploma, certificate, and continuing education programs. The college has five academic divisions, including the Division of Liberal Arts and Sciences. This division includes social and behavioral sciences; mathematics; fine arts and music; languages and literature; physical and life sciences; and select technical education programs. Faculty and administration of these programs share a common goal of continuous improvement.

Gaston College has a diverse student body in terms of age, gender and ethnicity, and many of our students come from populations which are underrepresented in STEM fields.  A total of 5,671 students were enrolled in degree-granting programs in the spring 2012 semester, of which 39% were first-generation college students, 29% were ethnic minorities, and 65% were women. While this project will target all STEM students, the project is expected to have a positive impact on the numbers of underrepresented students enrolling in and completing STEM programs.

SPARC3 or STEM Persistence and Retention via C3 {Curricula*Cohorts*Centralizing}.

SPARC3 will: (1) transform Curricula through integration of inquiry-based instruction in three introductory STEM courses and development of a research methods course with an undergraduate research component as a capstone experience; (2) reduce the unmet in-state financial need of Cohort students by providing scholarships; and (3) Centralize STEM student support services within a center environment to include advising, faculty and peer mentoring, cooperative work experiences and/or undergraduate research experiences, and professional tutoring. These practices are based upon high impact strategies shown to be successful in increasing retention and graduation for STEM students.


The mission of SPARC3 is to ignite student curiosity and to prepare future STEM professionals for success in an evolving work environment.


Capstone Research

After successfully completing at least one of our three target courses (General Biology, General Chemistry, and Statistical Analysis), students are able participate in a capstone course which focuses on participation in an individual or group undergraduate research project of their choosing.  Students meet for two hours a week in a team-taught seminar setting to discuss various aspects of the research process including the critique of scientific literature, IRB processes, field methods, basic lab research methods, useful statistical tests, and hypothesis testing. Students also participate in hands on research, supervised by a faculty member, for four hours each week.  Those that significantly participate for more than four hours each week are given honors credit. 

Students not only conduct their own research, supervised by a faculty member, but will also experience the proposal and review process as well as disseminate their work at an internal symposium.  

Currently the Research and Methods course focuses on biology research but the faculty led project team are petitioning the state of North Carolina and working with other regional community colleges to expand the course to other disciplines (Chemistry, Geology, Physics, Math, Psychology, etc...)

Our students participate in a wide variety of research experiences in both the lab and in the field.  Many of these students have also participated in local, regional, and national meetings where they have presented their research to professional and academic audiences.


On March 8, 2013 Gaston College hosted the first annual SPARC3 Professional Development day for our colleagues in the local region.  Over 50 faculty from community colleges and high schools from ther region attended and presented at this day of sharing.  We look forward to continuing this event next year.



In this course students conduct a research project in which they identify a microbial species from an environmental sample, using both traditional and molecular based techniques. In addition, students compare their data with others to contribute to a database of information regarding the biodiversity of the local region. Once the experiment is  designed and conducted, students write a paper describing what is discovered. This paper follows the format of a traditional peer reviewed scientific article.  In addition, students prepare an oral presentation (with visuals) of the methods used and results, which will be given at the end of the semester.

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The SPARC3project team has chosen an approach that focuses on the scaffolding of inquiry based instruction in a series of three pilot courses: General Biology, General Chemistry, and Statistical Analysis. These courses were chosen as they serve the majority of our STEM students, particularly those students enrolled in the Associate of Science and Associate of Applied Science in Biotechnology degree programs.  However, we expect to expand this curriculum change to all STEM courses within the next five years. Instructors will use varied methods of inquiry-based instruction, such as Process Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning (POGIL), Problem Based Learning (PBL), Peer Led Team Learning (PLTL), and case studies to create an optimal learning environment for all students in the three courses.


One element of this project will be the incorporation of course-integrated research activities.  Students will offer their own idea for investigation and apply four essential STEM elements: (1) development of a question, (2) experimental design, (3) data collection methods, and (4) interpretation of results.  As part of the overall project, it is expected that students will ultimately progress to inquiry level 3 (Schwab, 1962) by their fourth semester.


Vision and Change Implementation


Integrate Core Concepts and Competencies throughout the Curriculum

  • Introduce the scientific process to students early, and integrate it into all undergraduate biology courses

  • Relate abstract concepts in biology to real ­world examples on a regular basis, and make biology content relevant by presenting problems in a real ­life context 

  • Stimulate the curiosity students have for learning about the natural world

  • Demonstrate both the passion scientists have for their discipline and their delight in sharing their understanding of the world with students


Focus on Student ­Centered Learning

  • Engage students as active participants, not passive recipients, in all undergraduate biology courses

  • Use multiple modes of instruction in addition to the traditional lecture

  • Introduce research experiences as an integral component of biology education for all students, regardless of their major

  • Integrate multiple forms of assessment to track student learning


Promote a Campus wide Commitment to Change

  • Mobilize all stakeholders, from students to administrators, to commit to improving the quality of undergraduate biology education

  • Support the development of a true community of scholars dedicated to advancing the life sciences and the science of teaching

  • Advocate for increased status, recognition, and rewards for innovation in teaching, student success, and other educational outcome


Engage the Biology Community in the Implementation of Change

  • Promote more concept­ oriented undergraduate biology courses, and help all students learn how to integrate facts into larger conceptual contexts 

  • Provide all biology faculty with access to the teaching and learning research referenced throughout this report, and encourage its application when developing courses 

  • Create active ­learning environments for all students, even those in first ­year biology courses

High Impact Practices Implementation

Writing-Intensive Course

Undergraduate Research

Diversity/Global Learning

Service Learning

Community-Based Learning


Capstone Courses and Projects

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