Planning great new STEM projects

The new MentorLinks cohort met their mentors and conferred with them last month during a two-day workshop in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Madeline Patton)

Editor’s note: MentorLinks mentees began planning their two-year projects with mentors at a two-day meeting in Washington, D.C., in October. The American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) convened the meeting and awarded grants to the selected colleges with support from the National Science Foundation’s Advanced Technological Education (ATE) program.

Their projects involve various STEM disciplines, but all 11 of the new MentorLinks colleges share similar challenges with recruiting and retaining students until they complete credentials.

During a meeting wrap-up last month, the mentees said they were excited to learn from their assigned mentors as well as connect with the other mentors and mentee teams.

“Transformation only comes if you make yourself vulnerable,” said Gail Marie Alexander, who teaches environmental technologies and sustainable practices at Cascadia College in Washington. She explained that her first long, candid conversation with mentor Roger Ebbage helped her focus on her students’ potential jobs and the professional certifications that will enhance their career prospects.

MentorLinks is an AACC program that helps two-year colleges start or improve technician education programs. AACC has received funding since 1999 from ATE for the program that previous participants see as key to launching intended projects and helpful for instigating broader changes.

In addition to significant enrollment gains, MentorLinks alumni accomplishments include developing 140 new courses, 21 new associate degrees and 30 new certificates; establishing internships; enhancing industry partnerships; and leveraging their projects to obtain more than $4.5 million in additional grant funding.

The program structure

The MentorLinks college teams, which are selected through AACC’s competitive process, receive two years of mentoring from a community college, subject-matter expert; technical assistance from AACC; $20,000 grants for professional development and release time for curriculum development; and travel support through October 2019.

The one faculty member and one administrator on each of the 11 selected colleges’ teams are now preparing for their mentors’ visits to their campuses. Next year, the teams will have “reverse site visits” when each teams visits their mentor’s college or other community colleges, which have programs similar to ones they hope to launch.

‘Reverse site visits’ are a powerful part of MentorLinks

The new MentorLinks cohort first met their mentors and conferred with them in October during a two-day workshop in Washington, D.C. After, the MentorLinks teams attended the ATE Principal Investigators Conference. Approximately 850 people participated in the 2017 conference where ATE principal investigators and their industry partners shared information about their innovative technician education initiatives. The conference is also a networking opportunity where ATE principal investigators have developed collaborative approaches to the challenges of preparing highly skilled technicians for advanced technology fields of strategic importance to the nation.

Below is more information about the MentorLinks colleges’ plans and their mentors.

Focused on cybersecurity

Daytona State College in Florida wants to identify the most effective ways to help current and new IT and cybersecurity students complete required course sequences efficiently in four existing degree programs. It is considering using a cohort model to improve recruitment, retention and completion.

The Daytona State team plans to use geospatial data provided by its mentor Vincent DiNoto, Jr., to develop recruitment and retention strategies tailored for particular populations. DiNoto, principal investigator of the National Geospatial Technology Center of Excellence (GeoTech), created geospatial data packets for all 11 MentorLinks colleges.

At the MentorLinks meeting, DiNoto presented information about how to use U.S. Census data maps to improve STEM program outcomes with various populations. He explained that Jefferson Community and Technical College, which hosts the GeoTech Center, has improved the performance of underrepresented populations in gateway courses since providing city bus passes to all students. It began this program after GeoTech data identified a correlation between lower prerequisite course completions and public transportation usage. A survey of the student bus riders then found that not having money for bus fares affected their class attendance.

Using the MentorLinks community to improve STEM programs

Johnson County Community College (Kansas) wants to develop an AAS or certificate program in cybersecurity with a pathway for high school students to enter and matriculate to four-year degree programs. Mentor Danis Heighton, a professor of computer networking and cybersecurity/information assurance at Clark State Community College in Ohio, said Johnson County’s cybersecurity program aspirations are similar to Clark State’s in 2008 when it was selected for MentorLinks. (See related article.) Heighton also hopes to help the college prepare to obtain the rigorous CAE2Y designation.

McHenry County College in Illinois aims to increase enrollments in its network security program by adding Cisco courses. Convening an industry advisory board and obtaining faculty professional development are among the initial steps the team identified. Mentor Elizabeth Hawthorne is senior professor of computer science and cybersecurity at New Jersey’s Union County College. She has chaired the Association for Computing Machinery’s Committee for Computing Education in Community Colleges and has been involved in establishing national guidelines for cybersecurity technician education programs.

Piedmont Virginia Community College wants to increase enrollment in its cybersecurity studies certificate program and broaden industry involvement in it. Mentor Cathryn Balas, a consultant and evaluator, was an industry representative on Clark State Community College’s MentorLinks team in 2008 to 2010, and helped the college develop a virtual internship program with NSF support.

Exploring sustainability

Cascadia College looks to highlight certifications that will give students cross-discipline skills in environmental technologies and sustainable practices. The college has had an environmental technologies program since 2008, but wants to create “real opportunities for students” with regional employers. Mentor Roger Ebbage is the faculty leader of the Northwest Water and Energy Education Institute at Lane Community College (Oregon) and the co-principal investigator of the Center for Renewable Energy Advanced Technological Education Center (CREATE) hosted by Wisconsin’s Madison Area Technical College.

Ebbage has worked on national standards development for energy and sustainability technician programs. In 2017, Lane’s institute began a two-year online AAS degree in commercial building energy management in addition to its campus-based certificates and degrees that prepare sustainability coordinators, building control technicians and water conservation technicians.

Helping faculty tackle STEM tech ed issues

Ozarks Technical Community College (Missouri) looks to enhance its agriculture program with precision agriculture and improve retention rates in its general agriculture, plant and animal science, and turf and landscape programs. Mentor Jenni Fridgen, agriculture program director at Parkland College (Illinois), used focus groups’ input to expand a precision agriculture program with NSF grant support. Earlier this year, she received the Innovation in Engagement Award from the Champaign County Economic Development Corporation for the program that has more than 200 students.

Myriad technicians

Rockingham Community College in North Carolina hopes to increase the number and diversity of students in its machining program, and strengthen its connections with high schools and employers. Mentor Rick Polanin, a professor at Illinois Central College, has 40 years of experience in manufacturing education ranging from overseeing apprenticeships to university teaching. He is co-principal investigator of the National Center for Welding Education and Training.

Seminole State College (Oklahoma) plans to convene an industry advisory board and start an AAS degree to address multiple employers’ needs for highly skilled engineering technicians. Mentor Kevin Cooper is the principal investigator of the Regional Center for Nuclear Education and Training. Cooper is also dean of advanced technology at Florida’s Indian River State College. AACC has recognized the college’s Power Plant Technology Institute as one of the top five community college and corporate training partnerships for its collaborations with Florida Power and Light and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

Southeastern Community College in North Carolina wants to recruit more students for its new mechatronics/engineering technology program. It aims to offer credit for prior learning to older students and develop career paths for teenagers to enter the program from introductory mechatronics courses at high schools. Mentor James Hyder has served as an internal evaluator for the Southwest Center for Microsystems Education and industry liaison for Seattle’s Hub for Industry-driven Nanotechnology Education.

Encouraging experimentation

In Minnesota, Riverland Community College seeks to create new agriculture courses that address the workforce skills gap where agriculture converges with information technology and engineering technology. Mentor Kenneth Walz, principal investigator of CREATE and an instructor of chemistry, engineering and renewable energy at Madison College, has experience developing internship programs and industry partnerships. He plans to “explore synergies” with Parkland College and the multiple land grant colleges in Minnesota and Wisconsin to help the Richland team attain its goals.

Florida’s St. Petersburg College seeks to increase retention and graduation rates among student in its AS degree environmental science technology program. Along with enhancing its partnerships with the local business community, the college wants to add industry certifications, which will require faculty professional development. The MentorLinks grant will cover that.

Mentor Kathy Alfano is co-principal investigator of CREATE. She is an emeritus faculty member at California’s College of the Canyons, where she formerly served as dean of academic computing and professional programs and principal investigator of CREATE. Alfano also has served as a temporary program officer, or rotator, for the ATE program at the National Science Foundation.

About the Author

Madeline Patton
Madeline Patton is an education writer based in Ohio.