Giving back to MentorLinks

Faculty and students from high schools and colleges worked together on internship teams at industry sites in an innovative program that Clark State Community College tested with an NSF ATE grant. (Photo: Clark State)

MentorLinks mentors Danis Heighton and Cathryn Balas have more insights to share with their mentees than what they learned during the successful execution of multiple National Science Foundation (NSF) Advanced Technological Education (ATE) grants.

They know what it feels like to be new MentorLinks mentees who arrive at the first MentorLinks workshop in Washington, D.C., without a clear understanding of the ATE program and the national science agency, and unsure how to improve their programs.

Heighton and Balas were part of Clark State Community College’s MentorLinks team in 2008. He the faculty lead; she the representative of an industry partner. In the nine years since, they have worked together on multiple initiatives in cybersecurity including the AAS degree program that the Ohio college launched with MentorLinks’ help.

“We are on our third ATE grant, which we never would have been on had we not been in MentorLinks,” Heighton said.

A professor of computer networking and cybersecurity/information assurance at Clark State, Heighton has been the principal investigator on those three ATE project grants in cybersecurity. He is also co-principal investigator of another current ATE grant at Clark State; its focus is precision agriculture. Balas, who led industry and government workforce development initiatives, has been co-principal investigator on several of the grants.

‘Everything sped up’

Before Clark State was selected for MentorLinks, Heighton said it was a big deal for the college dean to allocate funds for him to attend Microsoft certification courses. With that certification, Heighton added networking courses, but in retrospect the college’s IT program as “lollygagging along” while the expectations of government agencies at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and high-tech employers near Springfield, Ohio, were soaring past the college’s graduates.

With MentorLinks, “Everything sped up,” Heighton said.

While the MentorLinks grant was relatively small — it is $20,000 for the 2017-2019 cohort — it was sufficient to pay for excellent professional development and cover release time so Heighton could develop five cybersecurity courses, two high-performance computing courses and two convergence technology courses.

Planning great new STEM projects

Heighton and Balas said the guidance they received from their mentor, Ann Beheler, and the site visits they made to other campuses and national research labs were invaluable in developing the cybersecurity degree program and obtaining their first ATE grant.

Beheler, who is principal investigator of the National Convergence Technology Center (CTC), calls Heighton and Balas “real stars.”

“It has been a pleasure to work with the Clark State team first through Mentorlinks, as their mentor, and now as an active member of CTC’s community of practice. It is wonderful to see them now sharing their passion for students and their knowledge as MentorLinks mentors,” she wrote in an email.

The results

Navneel Dutt and other Clark State Community College interns work through cybersecurity challenges during a Hack-a-Thon in 2016. After receiving his associate degree in cybersecurity in May, Dutt began an internship at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Washington. (Photo: Clark State)

Clark State graduates are qualifying for higher-level jobs and getting employers’ attention thanks to the virtual and in-person internships, which were created with the college’s second ATE grant. See the ATE@20 Blog about a Clark State student who leveraged his first internship through the ATE project into four more, including one after graduation at the prestigious Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Washington.

By having high school and college educators work with the student internship teams on real research project at companies and national labs, Clark State has developed a cadre of instructors capable of teaching dual-enrollment courses at its feeder high schools. Clark State’s newest cybersecurity grant, which started in August, provides funds to develop cybersecurity modules that high school teachers in Springfield, Ohio, and elsewhere can use to add cybersecurity content into standard high school curriculum.

Heighton and Balas are proud of Clark State’s recent designation as a Center of Academic Excellence in 2-Year Education (CAE2Y) because it adds value to Clark State graduates’ credentials. Both said the resources and guidance of the ATE cybersecurity centers were critical to Clark State personnel completing the rigorous CAE2Y process that government agencies at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and other high-tech employers recognize.

Lifelong friends

What the ATE centers are and how they can help colleges is one of things Heighton emphasized in his October face-to-face meetings with his mentees who plan to launch a new cybersecurity program at Johnson County Community College in Kansas.

With her mentees from Piedmont Virginia Community College, Balas shared something she remembers Beheler saying at the outset:  “You are going to make lifelong friends. You are going to meet colleagues who are going to impact you the rest of your life.”

In 2008, Balas said she was well established in a career that included work with multiple federal agencies and had attended national community college conferences during her term as a Clark State trustee. But, she said, none of those experiences resulted in the substantial professional and personal network she has with people in the ATE community.

“The distinction I see with ATE is the focus on sustainability, and because that sustainability is required on the grant, then I think the relationships get sustained as well. So I had unexpected personal and professional benefits,” she said.

About the Author

Madeline Patton
is an education writer based in Ohio.