21 August 2023

NASA Community College Network

Pamela Harman SETI Institute

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How do time-strained, overworked, and underresourced community college astronomy instructors find someone to discuss current NASA research, or find the relevant NASA Astro 101 resources? How would they find a NASA subject matter expert (SME) if they have questions about astronomy or current research?

The SETI Institute’s NASA Community College Network (NCCN) strives to increase the engagement of community college astronomy instructors (CCIs) and their learners with NASA resources, content, and SMEs. In this context, astronomy encompasses Astro 101 and equivalent courses, and includes astrophysics, planetary science, astrobiology, and heliophysics; and SME is used to encompass not only NASA staff but NASA-funded researchers and those using NASA data as well. NCCN is funded by NASA’s Science Mission Directorate through the competed Science Activation Solicitation. 

 NCCN has five components: 

  • Develop and maintain a searchable database with curated audience-specific resources, including NASA data products, written & audio-visual materials, software apps, simulations, short videos, images, and lab lesson plans;
  • Present and archive professional development webinars for both SMEs and CCIs;
  • Provide monthly CCI and quarterly SME forum webinars;
  • Run a web-based platform “Find an SME” matchmaking service, ranging from one-time virtual classroom visit to 1:1, professional development, to a long-term relationship, and other relationships as beneficial to both, and 
  • Develop and moderate an online Community of Practice.

NCCN is web-based, offering registration, the resource database, professional development (PD) webinars & archives, and “Find an SME.” CCI PD webinars address the use of NASA educational resources, understanding current NASA science content, and the process of NASA science. PD for participating SMEs ensures that their engagement is audience-appropriate, effective, and personally rewarding.

Early forum meetings, as formative input meetings, helped define the multipurpose platform. Recent findings indicate that the virtual connection has become a key component for instructors who are the only astronomy instructor on their campus.

“I just want to say thank you so much. I have really appreciated these meetings, and the opportunity to connect with colleagues as a department of one on my campus, like I'm. Sure many of you are. I hadn't realized quite how else isolated I felt until I was able to join the group. So thank you all.” 

The Community of Practice, launched on Slack, is for participating CCIs and SMEs to share ideas and concerns and shows increasing monthly engagement. 

Figure 1. Flowchart schematic of the proposed network. NASA Science/SMEs (blue); community college instructors (CCIs) & learners (green); NCCN platform (red).


Why focus on community colleges and instructors? 

Community colleges enroll 6.1 million students for credit annually. Women comprise 59% of the students. Among the “for-credit” students nationwide, 27% are Hispanic and 12% are Black, and 30% are the first generation of their families to attend college.1 These colleges consistently usher first-generation college attendees, underserved, and underrepresented students onto a university education.1 Also, many work closely with local school districts to provide a wider array of enriched educational choices for high school students; Middle College is one example. Connecting diverse SMEs with community colleges supports students who have difficulty seeing themselves in NASA-related STEM fields.2 Last but not least, community colleges offer courses that engage lifelong learners who remain an important dimension of national science literacy. 

In preparing for the NCCN proposal, SETI Institute staff convened CCI and SME focus groups to perform needs assessments. We found that the CCIs are often unaware of available NASA resources, and the need for audience-appropriate updates regarding NASA discoveries and missions. This was particularly true for part-time and new instructors. CCIs also requested specific NASA science resources not yet developed, that require NCCN staff work with consultant input. Focus group SMEs were eager to engage with CCIs and valued greater opportunities to do so. The SMEs we talked to, some of whom confessed that they would be nervous going into an elementary or middle school, felt more comfortable working with CCIs and their students. 

“I think community colleges are very important. I wanted to reach out to students who aren’t necessarily at their local state university.” —from an SME.

Why focus on Astronomy 101 and equivalent instructors?

The target audience is substantial. Over 700 of the public, accredited, degree-granting two-year institutions in the US offer courses in astronomy. These courses are taught under the headings of introductory astronomy, astrobiology, physics, geology, earth science, and natural science, by over 1,300 instructors, including a significant number of part-timers or adjuncts;3 a survey of adjuncts showed that only 23% had degrees in astronomy or astrophysics.4 Of the roughly 300,000 students enrolled in an intro astronomy course annually, an estimated 35-43% take them in community colleges.5  For many of the students, this is their last exposure to science and the process of science. 

Current statistics 

At about halfway through our 5-year cooperative agreement, the project reaches 101 community college instructors from 93 distinct institutions and 34 states; 98 SMEs from 74 research institutions, universities, and NASA centers. The resource database encompasses over 200 curated resources with resources added weekly. Evaluation of all aspects is completed by external evaluator WestEd. Findings indicate that webinars are well received and that the database is useful.6

Next steps

Our goal is to increase the number of SMEs and CCIs, thereby increasing the possibility of co-location, enabling deeper relationships. As gaps in resources are identified, we will partner with experts to develop resources to fill the gaps. While astronomy is an inspiring subject, the program is considering expanding to related courses such as earth science, when climate change is a topic, connecting even more SMEs to CCIs and their students.


  1. American Association of Community Colleges Fast Facts. 2023 National Profile of Community Colleges, https://www.aacc.nche.edu/research-trends/fast-facts/
  2. Cole D., Espinoza A. Examining the academic success of Latino students in science technology engineering and mathematics (STEM) majors. Journal of College Student Development. 2008;49(4):285–300. https://doi.org/10.1353/csd.0.0018
  3. Brissenden, G., Brogt, E., Greene, W.M., Thaller, M. Are You a Dot? Describing the Landscape of Astronomy Instruction in U. S. Community Colleges Using the NASA Center for Astronomy Education (CAE) Web-Delivered, Searchable Map. 2005 American Astronomical Society Meeting 207, id.92.05; Bulletin of the American Astronomical Society, Vol. 37, p.1321
  4. Fraknoi, A. Insights from a Survey of Astronomy Instructors in Community and Other Teaching-Oriented Colleges in the United States in Astronomy Education Review 3(1), 2004. http://dx.doi.org/10.3847/AER2004002 
  5. French, R. Everyone’s Universe: Teaching Astronomy in Community Colleges, in Astronomy Education: Evidence-based Instruction for Introductory Courses. Eds. Impey, C. & Buxner, S. 2019, Institute of Physics Press.
  6. (WestEd) Valcarcel, J., Grill-Hall, A. (2022) Feedback on Spring 2022 Participant Pairings through the NCCN Program: Feedback on paired SME and CCI interactions through the NCCN program.

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