Changing the campus culture

Through MentorLinks, Texas State Technical College has used several initiatives to recruit and retain women in the automotive technology program. Since 2014, female enrollment has doubled to eight women per semester. Photo: TSTC

Changing the culture of an institution is like turning the proverbial battleship. It takes time and a commitment from multiple people to set an institutional course toward a goal that will eventually lead to different attitudes and actions.

While cultural transformation on a community college campus requires a team approach, it often begins with one faculty member who identifies the need for change and has an idea for how to accomplish it.

MentorLinks grants facilitate the work of visionary community college faculty members by providing the funds for them to have release time from their usual teaching loads. For the faculty members selected as MentorLinks mentees this means they have the precious time necessary to learn about what others have done to achieve cultural changes at their campus, think about what will work best in their communities, develop new curricula or pedagogy, plan interventions or try new recruitment strategies.

MentorLinks grants also fund professional development, so mentees can tap into the expertise of other educators by attending discipline-specific conferences or workshops relevant to the issue they want to address.

The 2014-2016 MentorLinks cohort included two teams that used their grants to make specific STEM programs more inviting to underrepresented populations.

Faculty at Texas State Technical College recruited more women for the automotive technology program; and the team at Patrick Henry Community College increased the use of the college’s Fab Lab by a broader cross section of the local community.

Recruiting more females

Figuring out how to recruit and keep more women in the automotive technology program at Texas State Technical College led to more changes than new marketing materials.

Abel Castillo, automotive technology program chair, said questions from the college’s MentorLinks mentor Serita Acker challenged him and his colleagues. She asked: Why did he, college administrators and instructors want to increase nontraditional enrollment in the program? What did they think about women who work in automotive technology? And would they want their daughters to work in automotive technology?

“We think a certain way, but through the project, this process with Serita, our guru, has been able to change the way we think,” Castillo said during the final meeting of the 2014-2016 MentorLinks cohort. (Acker is the director of the Programs for Educational Enrichment and Retention (PEER) and Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) at Clemson University.)

The results of rethinking their approach to diversity and adopting strategies that Acker uses at Clemson have doubled the enrollment of women in Texas State’s auto tech program. Historically, the program had about four women per semester. This fall it has eight. Outreach to previous female students — both completers and non-completers — has led to several women returning to the college and enrolling in either welding, drafting or the auto collision repair program.

“It’s working. It is working,” Castillo said of the recruitment effort that he built through new partnerships with high schools, local auto dealers, national automakers and auto maintenance franchises.

AACC MentorLinks’ request for proposals from colleges seeking assistance to improve STEM technician programs and applications for mentors are now available at AACC’s MentorLinks webpage. College proposals and mentor applications are due April 28.

Lessons about changing culture

Castillo was surprised by how difficult it was to figure out who the audience would be for the recruitment effort and to select appropriate photos for new marketing materials. The success stories that he and his colleagues decided to feature focus on the economic opportunity available through automotive tech careers.

The recruitment effort has led to other program-wide changes. For instance evening classes have been added to make the program more accessible to women and other nontraditional students who may have day jobs or competing family responsibilities.

A student support workshop for women enrolled in automotive tech and other STEM programs will now be offered multiple times during the year. Castillo said he put off offering the workshop until the final months of MentorLinks because he was unsure how to structure an agenda for a workshop that would appeal to women.

He decided to begin the workshop by pointing out how important women are to the auto industry. Acknowledging that stereotypes still exist and that in some workplaces there may be only one female technician was a good ice breaker. It led to third and fourth semester students offering advice to students who are new to the program.

“Let me tell you it was a success. Our nontraditional students want to do it [the workshop] once a semester,” he said.

Acker encouraged MentorLinks participants and other educators interested in recruiting women to STEM fields to aim a portion of their outreach efforts to the many women who begin college as undeclared majors.

A diverse Fab Lab

In rural Martinsville, Va., Patrick Henry Community College‘s Fab Lab is a key component of economic development initiatives to spur entrepreneurship among local residents.

The move of the college’s public fabrication laboratory from a 1,400-square-foot space to a 14,000-square-foot space in the college’s Thomas P. Dalton IDEA Center coincided with the Patrick Henry’s MentorLinks project and its plan to increase diversity among those who use the Fab Lab’s 3-D printers, laser cutters and other high-tech equipment. (IDEA stands for Innovate. Design. Engineer. Accelerate.)

As part of MentorLinks, Fab Lab Coordinator Matthew S. Wade reached out to college faculty members in every discipline to encourage them to use the facility for their academic classes. Instructors from the engineering technology, art and early childhood did. So far, three students have started small businesses using tools introduced to them during academic classes in the Fab Lab.

David Dillard, the general engineering technologies faculty member who was part of the college’s MentorLinks team, said that his students have started asking him about what his upcoming classes will do in the Fab Lab. He has also noticed that students are thinking more creatively. (Jim Hyder, industry liaison for North Seattle College, served as Patrick Henry’s mentor.

Other promising signs include the growing number Hispanics and African-Americans among the lab’s users. Overall, Fab Lab use increased from 145 people in 2014-15, to 180 in 2015-16. The gender breakdown stayed about the same with women comprising about 40 percent of lab users. However, the age-range of users has expanded to include elementary school students, community college students and older community members.

“We have a pretty strong entrepreneurial resource group in our area. It’s all about providing start-up assistance, so finding the funding assistance is our next big challenge,” said Rhonda Hodges, vice president of workforce, economic and community development at Patrick Henry.

To continue the work started with MentorLinks, Hodges said college personnel have applied to state and federal agencies as well as other organizations for support.

Editor’s note: The article is part of a series focusing on MentorLinks, a program funded by the National Science Foundation and managed by the American Association of Community Colleges.

About the Author

Madeline Patton
is an education writer based in Ohio.