Boosting STEM Education at Community Colleges
Jul 08, 2012 Comment
A 2011 report about STEM workforce needs (STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) from the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University indicates that by 2018, 92 percent of STEM workers will need post-secondary education.
Of that total, around 65 percent will need a Bachelor's degree or higher, while 35 percent will be comprised of those with sub-baccalaureate training. The breakdown in qualifications making up that 35 percent: 1 million Associate's degrees; 745,000 professional certificates; and 760,000 industry-based certifications.
According to the report, "There is increasing demand for STEM talent at the sub-baccalaureate level and our education system has, thus far, not adequately produced those workers. Going forward, our Career and Technical Education system will need a stronger STEM curriculum at the high-school and sub-baccalaureate level that is more tightly linked with competencies necessary for STEM jobs."
Clearly, America's community colleges are an essential part of bolstering the STEM workforce, and many of them are endeavoring to build and strengthen their STEM offerings based on current and projected industry needs. How can we help community colleges boost their ability to turn out qualified, employable STEM workers?
One good model for capacity building at the sub-baccalaureate level is the MentorLinks program, administered by the American Association of Community Colleges as part of the Advancing Technological Education program, which is Congressionally mandated and funded by the National Science Foundation. The MentorLinks program isn't big or flashy, but for a relatively modest investment in a select number of STEM programs at community colleges, it appears to achieve some significant, lasting results.
Here's how it works: through a national grant competition, AACC selects a small number of community colleges for a two-year grant program. The current 2011-2013 cohort has eight grantees, bringing the grand total of grantees since the program started in 2002 to just 33. Each grantee receives a modest grant to fund program development (for the current cohort, the two-year grant total was just $20,000) along with funding for travel to attending national meetings.
The grantees represent a range of technical education programs from across the country, and each is matched with a mentor who has knowledge and connections in the area of STEM training the grantees plan to develop, with mentors receiving a small stipend. Working closely with their mentors, faculty and staff from the colleges endeavor to establish or strengthen a specific program, often in partnership with regional and local partners in government and industry.
For instance, as part of the 2008-2010 grant cohort, Clark State Community College in Springfield, Ohio, developed a new program in cybersecurity and information assurance. In collaboration with partner Avetec, Clark State then received its first ATE grant from the NSF, garnering an additional $146,000 to further support the new program.
Neosho County Community College in Chanute, Kansas, developed an Associate's in Applied Science degree in energy management with a specialized certificate in sustainable energy installation. The program grew from three classes to 14, doubling the number of faculty and students. As one of only three approved energy auditing programs recognized by the state of Kansas, it then received $137,000 in state funding for additional program development.
These are just two examples. MentorLinks also has helped build and strengthen programs in advanced manufacturing, aquaculture, biotechnology, electronics, engineering technology, environmental technology, geospatial technology (GIS), information technology, laboratory science, video game programming and welding.
Grant money helps, of course, especially when it ultimately leverages more grant money. But the power of the program lies in its facilitation of two-year mentorships, as well as opportunities for professional development and networking. Furthermore, while the project briefs for the three previous MentorLinks cohorts do a great job of summarizing each grantee's process and outcomes, what can't be captured in bullet points is the long-term impact.
This program is giving community college educators the opportunity to connect with experts and colleagues from across the nation, and that has lasting if hard-to-determine value. Also not easy to summarize, but worth considering when thinking about the program's true ROI: the time and money saved by helping grantees work strategically, follow best practices and avoid pitfalls.
Over the past 10 years, MentorLinks has worked with 33 STEM programs. That may not sound like much. But each of those programs will go on to train hundreds or even thousands of workers. In addition, the grantee colleges come out of the two-year program with knowledge and relationships that will no doubt fuel their future capacity to grow and evolve.
Consider this: there are more than 1,100 public and independent community colleges in the United States serving around 13 million students (credit and noncredit). Whether those students plan to transfer elsewhere and complete a four-year degree, or are pursuing an Associate's degree, or are turning to their local community college for specialized training and certification, everyone stands to benefit if STEM education at this level is relevant and robust.
MentorLinks seems like a program worth studying and replicating in order to provide similar outcomes and benefits to more of our nation's community college students, perhaps through increased NSF funding to expand the current effort, or through public-private partnerships that build on this model's methods.
For that matter, while STEM jobs represent a small but important segment of the workforce, colleges and funders might also borrow elements from the MentorLinks approach to boost capacity in a wide range of in-demand training and certificate programs.
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