Improving Undergraduate Research Experiences
Lessons From a Historically Black University’s Unusual Collaboration
By Peter G. Verity, Matthew R. Gilligan, Marc E. Frischer, Melissa G. Booth, Joseph P. Richardson, and Chandra Franklin

From the February 2002 AAHE Bulletin


African Americans remain significantly underrepresented in the geosciences (earth, atmospheric, and marine sciences) and in the educational pathways leading to science professions. With help from the National Science Foundation, our two institutions — Savannah State University and the Skidaway Institute of Oceanography — have joined together to improve the research experiences of African American undergraduates and perhaps, over time, attract more of these students to the sciences.

Savannah State University, like many other Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), is a small undergraduate teaching institution and does not have the resources or justification to develop and maintain extensive modern research facilities. Thus our students, while receiving classroom and laboratory instruction, often do not have the exposure to and training in sophisticated research environments. Without such exposure, students are less confident and competitive than those who do. This is a serious problem because HBCUs, which enroll only 12 percent of the African Americans who are in college, award 40 percent of the science degrees earned by African Americans.

A solution with potential to promote research experiences among African-American undergraduates is to combine minority institution teaching expertise and resources with those associated with traditional research facilities through the formation of collaborative partnerships. Such partnerships, if successful, can provide diversified educational and research opportunities for students and faculty at both institutions without necessitating significant new human or physical infrastructure.

Savannah State University and the Skidaway Institute of Oceanography have formed just such a partnership in an area of mutual interest: marine science. Here we describe the success of this partnership and provide suggestions for other institutions interested in initiating partnerships between teaching and research institutions.

The Plan and the Partners
In 1997 the National Science Foundation (NSF) established the Collaboration to Integrate Research and Education (CIRE) program to promote the formation of long-term research and education relationships between minority-serving institutions and NSF-supported facilities. Our partnership was born from this program.

Savannah State University, established in 1890 as the Georgia State Industrial College for Colored Youth, now enrolls approximately 2,300 students annually; 90 percent of the student body is African American. It has a nationally recognized undergraduate program in marine science, with approximately 50 students enrolled in a given year. The Skidaway Institute of Oceanography, an autonomous research unit of the University System of Georgia, is located on Skidaway Island, which sits in Savannah River’s Intracoastal Waterway. The school was established in 1967 as an independent, non-degree-granting research facility. Its primary mission includes basic and applied research in all major disciplines of marine and environmental science, with application to local, regional, and global environmental problems.

At Savannah State, exposure to research environments in marine environmental science and biotechnology had historically been largely limited to a few active on-campus research programs but mostly occasional out-of-state summer programs. At Skidaway, opportunities for formal training of undergraduate students in the research process were essentially nonexistent before our partnership.

Our two institutions joined hands in a CIRE partnership with the long-term goal of enhancing diversity in the science and engineering research and education enterprise. It is a collaboration that includes diversification of existing courses at Savannah State by inclusion of teaching and research modules by Skidaway faculty; formal detailed training through research assistantships for qualified Savannah State student interns at Skidaway; reciprocal faculty exchange opportunities; and collaborative curriculum development.

Savannah State educational programs benefit from access to Skidaway’s research facilities, and Skidaway faculty members learn from Savannah State how to translate research knowledge into the educational process. The combined process improved research capabilities of the Savannah State faculty. It enabled them to upgrade the facilities, initiate collaborative research projects, mentor student research interns, and, most importantly, obtain research grants to sustain research activities at Savannah State.

The goals of the program include:

  • Increase the number of underrepresented minorities entering advanced degree programs in science, engineering, and mathematics, specifically in marine science and biotechnology.
  • Promote and strengthen the formal education and research collaboration between the two institutions.
  • Improve the quality of undergraduate instruction in marine and environmental science and biotechnology by incorporating hands-on research opportunities and advanced curricular offerings jointly developed by both Skidaway and Savannah State faculty and staff.
  • Elevate the exposure of underrepresented minority students to career pathways in marine science and in science, engineering, and mathematics in general.
  • Enhance the quality and quantity of research activities for the Savannah State science and technology faculty and students.

Two Critical Steps
We learned that in developing such relationships, two issues must be taken into account:

The relationship should be fostered over time between partners that mutually benefit and understand each other. This point is particularly important because it speaks to the need for the minority-serving institution to materially and intellectually benefit from involving research in the educational process, and the need for the research facility to benefit from involvement with the educational institution, without significantly reducing their respective primary missions of instruction and funded research.

Partnerships must lead to dedicated institution-to-institution agreements specifying goals and objectives. We took advantage of a fortuitous geographic and administrative relationship between Savannah State and Skidaway. Both members of the University System of Georgia, our institutions have always had the potential to create more definitive ties. In the past, however, these relationships have developed only on an ad hoc basis between individual faculty members. Together Savannah State and Skidaway have now developed a formal inter-institutional agreement; share joint adjunct faculty status; co-supervise undergraduate students; jointly teach courses in marine science, biology, and biotechnology; administer collaborative projects; and conduct collaborative research.

This agreement continues to be championed by Savannah State’s president and Skidaway’s director, ensuring that internal resources are brought to bear to streamline operations, minimize red tape, and facilitate faculty involvement. At Savannah State these commitments have included seeking new state resources and redirection for faculty line positions, and high-level administrative participation in efforts to promote the marine science program in the state and nationally.

Similarly, Skidaway has demonstrated its commitment to increasing its role in education activities by building a teaching laboratory on its campus, redesigning its new research ship specifically to accommodate student classes, and including educational activities as a category for faculty evaluation and promotion. Savannah State’s vice president for academic affairs sits on Skidaway’s Advisory Board, and Skidaway faculty serve on curriculum and program development committees at Savannah State.

As a result, the partnership is based on complementary missions, resources, and expertise; mutually beneficial program objectives; and a common administrative structure. Savannah State provides teaching expertise, instructional laboratories, classrooms, and a pool of motivated students. Skidaway provides research infrastructure and expertise in a variety of marine science disciplines, in some cases not otherwise available to Savannah State students.

We learned several lessons from our efforts:

  • Strong institutional leadership is key to shaping an environment that promotes and maintains the impetus for institutional reform.
  • A minimum of five years is required to implement significant institutional change, by gaining general acceptance of the need for and direction of institutional reform.
  • Undergraduate exposure to internships and research in a supportive environment is a key determinant in whether a student plans to attend graduate school.
  • Research-intensive institutions represent significant resources that can jump-start department-level research and education activities at minority-serving institutions, and make a major contribution to increasing the number of minority students prepared to go on to graduate programs.
  • A strong advisory committee can be proactive in identifying barriers to change and working to overcome them.
  • Pilot programs do not necessarily produce institutional change, because it takes the prospect of full-scale implementation to raise all the issues that must be addressed and involve all the players who must participate.
  • Without institutionalization of changes, real development does not occur.

Optimism for the Future
U.S. institutions of higher learning continue to be challenged by the demands of society to produce more and better-trained students, particularly underrepresented minority students, in the fields of science, engineering, and mathematics. Our project is making inroads against this problem by providing experience for faculty at both institutions, and giving the opportunity to document for the University System of Georgia that the collaboration is appropriate and successful.

The organization of a competitive framework for research training, the provision for expanding the depth and diversity of existing courses at Savannah State, and the collaboration between Savannah State and Skidaway faculty in teaching, research, and curriculum development is going a long way toward enhancing the opportunities and quality of training in marine and environmental sciences and biotechnology.

The student internship program has been especially successful. During 1999-2000 (the most recent year data available), 82 percent of the graduating class in marine science had significant (more than 200 hours) research experience through these internships. Just three years prior, only 25 percent of the graduating class had similar amounts of research experience.

Several of the interns have presented results of their research at national and even international meetings, thereby receiving exposure to the global world of science, something that never would be possible without this interinstitutional program.

In recognition of the growth and success of the undergraduate marine science program and especially this collaboration, the University System of Georgia has approved a new marine science M.S. degree program at Savannah State.

The partnership between Savannah State University and the Skidaway Institute of Oceanography is distinctive because not only does it integrate research and instruction in a well-defined area of common interest, it also supports current strategic planning and academic program growth and development at both institutions. We hope that our program can be used as a model for other institutions in the state and region as an important and sustainable mechanism to increase the number of underrepresented scientists in the field of marine science.

The NSF’s Collaboration to Integrate Research and Education program has ended. Information on the program and its participants is still available online at

Peter G. Verity is an oceanography professor at the Skidaway Institute of Oceanography. Contact him at

Matthew R. Gilligan is a professor and director of marine science at Savannah State University. Contact him at

Marc E. Frischer is an associate professor of oceanography at the Skidaway Institute of Oceanography. Contact him at

Melissa G. Booth is an assistant research professor at Savannah State University and has a joint appointment as a research scientist at the Skidaway Institute of Oceanography. Contact her at

Joseph P. Richardson is a marine science professor at Savannah State University. Contact him at

Chandra Franklin is an associate professor of biology at Savannah State University. Contact him at

Copyright © 2008 - American Association for Higher Education and Accreditation