Diamonds in the Rough

Tom HigginsTom Higgins ’92 returned to his alma mater in early April as part of a visit coordinated by the Kalamazoo Section of the American Chemical Society. Higgins talked about “How Undergraduate Research Experiences Can Change Students’ Lives.” He should know.  Higgins and a number of collaborators have made great strides in cultivating future scientists by introducing undergraduate research experiences for students at two-year institutions. Known as STEM-ENGINES (Engaging the Next Generation in Exploring STEM), their research collaborative has enabled over 286 Chicago-area students, including many first-generation American citizens, to gain academic-year and summer research experience mentored by chemistry and biology faculty. Often these “diamonds in the rough” may not have envisioned research as a potential career path.

The K chemistry major cites his foreign study experience (Erlangen, Germany) as a source of insight and empathy into his own students’ discomfort in learning beyond their comfort zone. He sees community colleges as important part of the higher education landscape and his research demonstrates that small investments in a student can have a big payoff benefiting individuals, families, institutions, and communities.

Higgins is a program director in the National Science Foundation’s Division of Undergraduate Education, and he also serves as a professor at Harold Washington College, one of the City Colleges of Chicago.
He began teaching at Harold Washington in 1998 after completing his Ph.D. at Northwestern. He never thought he’d be there as long as he has been, but–as he told an audience of students and faculty from K, Western Michigan University and Kalamazoo Valley Community College– the atmosphere created by small class sizes made it hard to leave.

Text and photo by Ann Jenks