When Jennifer O'Loughlin-Brooks applied to graduate school in psychology, she was surprised to learn that she was missing one key qualification: research experience.

Now, as a psychology professor at Collin County Community College (CCCC) in Plano, Texas, she works to make sure that her students won't face that same surprise. As the co-founder of the college's successful student research group, she shepherds students through the process of designing, conducting, writing and presenting their own studies on psychology topics as varied as human sexuality, civic engagement and police evaluation of mental illness.

The experience is intensive, but involved students welcome the challenge.

"It was a really rewarding experience, even with all the work that was involved," says Kim Tanuvasa, a CCCC student who worked on the study of police evaluation of mental illness and who plans to eventually get a PhD in counseling. "I'm trying to get as much research experience as I can to prepare for graduate school."

Underdogs' success

Over the past two years, the research group has begun to garner attention for its members' success. They've attended three undergraduate research conferences, often as the only representatives from a two-year college, and won prizes at every one—including a first-place and four second-place papers at the 2004 Great Plains Students' Psychology Convention.

"What I like about it is that we're often kind of the underdogs," O'Loughlin-Brooks says. "We go and break down those pre-existing ideas of what community college students are like."

O'Loughlin-Brooks began taking students to undergraduate research conferences when she first came to the school in 1997. In 2002, she and the group's other faculty sponsor, Valerie Smith, started the research group as an activity of the school's chapter of Psi Beta, the national honor society for community and junior college psychology students.

High-level research

To get students started each year, O'Loughlin-Brooks suggests some general topics, such as human sexuality or civic engagement, and the students—who numbered 12 last year and 10 this year—break into groups of three or four to flesh out specific studies. Then they review previous literature, design and conduct the studies, analyze the data, and write everything up according to APA style—meeting weekly as a group to discuss each study's progress.

Last year's topics included, among others, using written scenarios to evaluate police cadets' ability to discriminate between mental illnesses and drug-induced states; a survey of undergraduates' knowledge of sexual anatomy and the implications of that knowledge for sexual education and health; and a literature review examining the personality characteristics of road rage offenders.

"The students work hours and hours to do this high-level research," O'Loughlin-Brooks says. "By the time they finish, they've practically written a thesis on their topic."

In fact, the CCCC psychology department has recognized the research group members' work by providing each with a $500 scholarship from the department's Excellence Fund to help cover books and classes. And two former research group members have received partial scholarships from the psychology department at Southern Methodist University, where they have transferred.

But the rewards of the research have been more than just material, many of the students say. Jessica Shreve, who worked on the study of undergraduates' sexual anatomy knowledge last year, has transferred to the University of North Texas as a psychology major and plans to go on to graduate school. Because of her research experience, she says, she feels more prepared for much of her class work than many of her classmates at the university.

"It's been incredibly useful," she says. "I took a statistics class last semester, and there was so much stuff that the students around me weren't getting, because it was all theoretical. But I already had hands-on experience doing the same things for my research project."

That's the kind of feedback that O'Loughlin-Brooks likes to hear. She wants students to learn that research can be creative and empowering, and to give them ownership over their own work and a better understanding of the science of psychology.

"It's great," she says "to see them become passionate about psychology."