Innovation is key at new workforce centers

A lab at the new STEM center at Hudson County Community College. (Photo: HCCC)

The newly renovated Applied Technology and Trades Center at Aims Community College in Colorado integrates learning into the actual walls of the building.The architects created a cut-away design so wiring, plumbing and mechanical systems inside the walls are visible behind glass. Part of the ceiling is open, too. Signage throughout the building explains the various components.

“We were looking to provide a space that acted as an instructional tool itself,” said Aims President Leah Bornstein, who also serves on the American Association of Community Colleges’ board of directors.

An array of solar panels on top of a pergola fabricated by students in the welding program will provide energy for the building. It will also serve as a teaching tool, as students learn how to dismantle and reinstall the panels.

That design makes the learning inside the building more real for students in Aims’ construction management program. The building also houses programs in engineering technology with computer-aided drafting and 3D printing, industrial technology, oil and gas technology and welding technology.

Aims is among a growing number of community colleges across the country that are building or revamping workforce education and STEM centers to ensure students have access to the technology and tools used in their fields of study.

A partnership from the start

At Aims, students were involved with the project from the start. The design and contracting firms brought guest speakers to classes, hosted tours of the construction site and previewed the project for students throughout the design and construction process.

The new building was needed to house training equipment such as process control trainers, programmable log controllers and a seven-station mechatronics system that were funded by a $670,300 grant from the U.S. Labor Department under the Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training program (TAACCCT).

The college worked with advisory committees for each academic program to consider current and future technology needs as the building was designed, Bornstein said. The college also consulted with local employers, such as Aqua-Hot, which produces heaters for recreational vehicles, and Woodward Inc., a manufacturer of aerospace components.

The Applied Technology and Trades Center at Aims Community College. (Photo: Aims)

Most of the students expected to take classes in the new center are incumbent workers who are upskilling, but it’s also expected to serve recent high school graduates and current high school students in dual-enrollment programs.

Bornstein calls the project “a fabulous example of how a building can be utilized to meet the need of the programs.”

“The Applied Technology and Trades Center brings tremendous opportunity to northern Colorado for our students, the community and our business partners,” she said. This new state-of-the-art center “will help build the future for students and business partners looking to fill jobs that are in high demand.”

Advanced manufacturing

A new Center for Advanced Manufacturing at Forsyth Technical Community College in North Carolina consolidates several programs – mechanical engineering technology, industrial technology, integrated machining and welding technology, including programmable robotic welding – under one roof.

Forsyth Tech’s welding technology program uses the latest modern industrial welding equipment with capabilities including oxyacetylene, electric arc and programmable robotic welding. (Photo: Forsyth Tech)

Before, those programs were scattered among the college. Having those programs in one facility makes it easier for students and instructors to interact with each other, said Todd Bishop, dean of engineering technologies. For example, design students can collaborate with students in mechanical engineering who work in the same industry.

The new center, in a newly renovated building, has updated features, such as flatscreen monitors and interactive teaching stations that allow what instructors write on white boards or project on a screen to be uploaded by students. It also has the latest equipment for teaching computer numerical-control machining, and there’s an additive manufacturing lab with six 3D printers.

There’s a large demand for people with manufacturing skills in the region, Bishop said. Every program has a work-based learning component, allowing students to earn credits while working on the job. In some cases, students also have paid internships.

Funding for the new center came from a state bond referendum, county funds and foundation funds. The college invested about $1.25 million in equipment.

Seeking biotech technicians

Middlesex Community College (MCC) in Massachusetts opened a new cybersecurity facility last spring and received a $3 million capital grant from the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center, a state agency, to build a state-of-the-art biotechnology facility in an existing building.

“Biotech is an economic engine in our region, and we welcome opportunities to better align our programs of study with industry standards,” said MCC President James Mabry.

The college’s plans to upgrade its facilities and curriculum are based on advice from an industry advisory committee and extensive network of biotech companies, Mabry said.

“Massachusetts is third in the nation in biotechnology, and the industry is rapidly growing, with a lot of firms moving out of Boston and Cambridge into our backyard,” he noted, and that is creating a huge demand for new talent. An analysis by MCC of emerging workforce needs found that for each employee with a doctorate, there’s a need for five lab technicians with associate degrees.

Students studying at the new cybersecurity facility at Middlesex Community College. (Photo: MCC)

To eliminate the possibility of contamination, the new building will have an updated and upgraded clean room and a “gowning room” where students will put on gowns, masks, hairnets and booties before entering clean labs.

“We’re really trying to mimic the industry environment, so they will understand the protocols and practice for working in a lab,” Mabry said. That will reduce the amount of training that firms will have to do for new hires.

About 200 students are in the biotech program, and everyone who completes the program gets a job or enrolls in a bachelor’s degree program at another institution of higher education, he said.

MCC is now looking to raise another $1.4 million for another facility and hopes to start construction next summer. The college is leveraging multiple funding sources for the project, including a $117,000 Massachusetts Skills Capital Grant, MCC’s share of $20 million TAACCCT grant for a Guided Pathways to Success in STEM program, and college funds.

“Cyber is another rapidly growing field with an insatiable appetite for frontline staff,” Mabry said.

The college works with its industry partners, notably defense contractor Mitre Corp., to ensure its programs are up to date, as there seems to be a huge new data breach every week, he said.

There are just over 100 students in the program. Some get jobs right away after earning associate degrees and industry certifications; others transfer to the University of Massachusetts or other institutions for bachelor degrees in computer science.

Their own STEM labs on campus

Hudson County Community College (HCCC) in New Jersey opened a new $30 million, 70,000-square foot STEM building in September.

Each of the top five floors of the six-story building is dedicated to a specific course of study: chemistry and organic chemistry; biology, microbiology and histology; physics, engineering and electronics engineering; geology and environmental studies; and mathematics. Each of those floors has lecture halls, classrooms, science labs, prep rooms, clean rooms, “dirty rooms,” STEM computer labs and stations, conference rooms, breakout rooms, faculty offices and student lounges.

Located just a few blocks from the Hudson River, the building offers “million-dollar views of the Statue of Liberty and New York skyline,” said HCCC President Glen Gabert.

The building is filled with state-of-the art equipment, such as autoclaves, incubators, ionizers, explosion-proof refrigerators and vacuum ovens. Unique features include classrooms and breakout rooms adjacent to labs, which have walls coated with “Wink,” a water-soluble, dry-erase coating and microscopes that transmit images to laptops.

A classroom at the new STEM building at Hudson County Community College. (Photo: HCCC)

The study rooms and work stations on every floor are especially important at an urban college. Most students have small living spaces, so the need a quiet place to study on campus.

Up to now, HCCC had to rent lab space at other colleges and universities, Gabert notes. The new STEM building was paid for from county and state governments – with no debt. “This was fully paid for before the first shovel hit the ground,” he said.

“The most important thing, however, is not the building, but the students we are serving and the programs that are offered,” Gabert said.

“STEM studies offer the greatest opportunities for well-paying, long-lasting careers and economic growth,” he said. All of the programs in the new facility – such as environmental studies, computer science and engineering – are designed to “connect to meaningful work.”

Offering opportunities

When HCCC began revising its academic master plan five years ago, college leaders found “a mind meld around STEM as the signature program at the community college,” said Eric Friedman, vice president for academic affairs.

HCCC’s certification programs are designed to “ladder into degrees,” Gabert says. The college also has a large dual-enrollment program.

Any high school student interested in a meta-major in STEM can take foundational courses at HCCC even if they don’t know which specific area they want to focus on, Friedman added.

The college has also expanded its internship program with grants from its foundation. Students can get a $2,000 summer stipend working at something related to their field, such as helping  professors with research in physics or engineering at a Rutgers University’s Newark campus, New Jersey Institute of Technology or another institution.

About the Author

Ellie Ashford
is associate editor of Community College Daily.