Helping faculty tackle STEM tech ed issues

A new safety railing had to be installed on the roof of Shoreline Community College's net-zero energy house before students could practice installing a battery-based photovoltaic system there. It was one of many tasks Louise Petruzzella accomplished to attain her MentorLinks goal of giving students more experience using clean energy technologies.

The American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) designed MentorLinks to help faculty tackle STEM technician education challenges that do not have easy answers.

The $20,000 grants, which AACC provides with support from the National Science Foundation, allow faculty, with the support of their institution’s administration, to test ideas to resolve issues that may have been lingering for years or that may be emerging with new technologies.

To encourage innovation, AACC’s staff provides attentive, flexible support and resources. Mentors offer advice upon request and ask motivational questions. Faculty at the three community colleges featured today executed ambitious, multi-faceted plans that evolved during the past two years to meet the needs of students and communities.

Because Shoreline Community College in Washington state accomplished all its initial MentorLinks project goals during the first year of its grant, it could focus on improving program completion rates in the second year. HACC: Central Pennsylvania’s Community College transformed its entire in-person geographic information systems program for online delivery. At South Carolina’s Tri-County Technical College, the effort to serve students with unusual work schedules delved into the even more complicated challenge of providing students with hands-on, asynchronous labs without leaving them isolated from the college community.

Giving students experience  

Having accomplished all her original MentorLinks goals in the first year of the project, Louise Petruzzella used 2016 to tackle even more ambitious challenges. This past year, she created a long-term plan for the Clean Energy Technology & Entrepreneurship program that meshes with Shoreline Community College‘s strategic plan.

Petruzzella is now the program’s full-time director and faculty member; she began as an adjunct instructor after graduating from the degree program. In addition to creating two new courses — virtual construction technology and advanced sketch-up for creating 3-D photovoltaic models — Petruzzella made progress this past year on improving completion rates. With 48 large construction cranes operating in downtown Seattle, the building boom means students frequently find work or earn the promotions they are seeking without completing the 45-credit certificate or 90-credit associate in applied arts and science degree.

The Clean Energy Technology & Entrepreneurship program prepares students to operate alternative energy, energy efficient and high-performance building systems. Students can specialize in the design of sustainable buildings or photovoltaic systems.

April 28 is the deadline to apply for the next cohort of colleges to participate the MentorLinks program.

Petruzzella’s desire to provide students with more hands-on experience with real equipment was a key reason she applied for the MentorLinks grant. The industry advisory board that she convened as part of MentorLinks is quite active, providing input on curriculum and donating equipment.

“The advisory board engagement has been so robust for this program that it is now a model for the rest of the college, and the college has gotten me involved in the biotechnology program to help build their advisory board,” Petruzzella reported at the annual MentorLinks meeting this fall.

Reconfigured for online delivery

At HACC, Nicole Ernst attained her MentorLinks goal of refreshing the college’s geospatial technology associate degree program with new and updated courses and a stackable certificate. The entire program is now offered exclusively online in a format that Ernst hopes will attract students in the college’s service area and in states that do not have such programs.

All the courses have been aligned to the Geospatial Technology Competency Model, re-sequenced to foster completion and renumbered to facilitate articulation. Ernst, an associate professor of geospatial technology, is working on articulation agreements with three Pennsylvania state colleges. She also is seeking a partnership with a four-year online institution. (The competency model was developed by the National Geospatial Technology Center of Excellence (GeoTech Center) for the U.S. Labor Department. Vince DiNoto, Ernst’s MentorLinks mentor, directs the ATE-funded GeoTech Center at Kentucky’s Jefferson Community and Technical College.)

Read the other articles in our recent series on the AACC MentorLinks program.

Ernst plans to use her MentorLinks experience to add a K-12, cloud-based component to HACC’s program. She sees this as a way of mentoring other educators and building awareness about geospatial technologies. One of the first courses she created during MentorLinks was a geospatial awareness course.

Enrollment has increased with the online format, more than doubling in the introductory course. Students like being able to rewind lectures to go over information they don’t understand. Students also access the shorter videos that Ernst created and placed on YouTube to cover common skills and frequently asked questions.

In a new direction 

During MentorLinks, Amanda Orzechowski created 34 asynchronous labs — her goal was 15 — to go with the online lectures of five hybrid, technical courses that she created for Tri-County Technical College students who work rotating, swinging 12-hour shifts.

To give these students hands-on laboratory experiences, she pulled together low-cost equipment that they could take home to learn about things like sensors and programmable logic controllers (PLCs).

The biggest lessons for Orzechowski from this two-year effort are that “hybrid is still not flexible enough,” and that online lectures and asynchronous labs do not offer a sufficient connection to the college for some students.

“Online or by-yourself kind of accentuates some negative problems. Our ‘peeps’ need relationships. The success of our programs counts on the cohort mentality and the relationships with faculty,” she said. Since she started in MentorLinks in 2014 when she was an engineering graphics instructor, Orzechowski has been promoted to dean of engineering at Tri-County.

To help students who work variable shifts and to meet the needs of other nontraditional students who also need to develop better support networks with faculty and peers, Orzechowski now wants to try a different type of asynchronous lab for technical courses.

It would be on campus and staffed by instructors who would take turns in the lab. This means a knowledgeable faculty member would be available to answer students’ questions over extended hours. She envisions students creating informal cohorts among themselves either by arranging with friends to do their lab assignments at the same time or by working with whoever happens to be in the lab at the same time.

“The cohort mentality we have at the college strongly and positively impacts our retention rates,” Orzechowski said.

She hopes that the partnerships with local employers like Bosch and Michelin that grew during MentorLinks will help her achieve this new version of asynchronous labs. She also plans to continue collaborating with the National Center for Optics and Photonics Education (OP-TEC) — where Tri-County Tech’s mentor Gordon F. Snyder is associate director — and interacting with other ATE centers.

Orzechowski wants to “stay in the game” with the ATE community. “They help me build more relationships, more networks, more connections,” she said, adding that building her professional skills this way will help with her current job responsibilities and when she is ready to apply for an ATE grant.

About the Author

Madeline Patton
is an education writer based in Ohio.