Mentor-Connect helps colleges fine-tune their proposals

The Mentor-Connect team from Seward County Community College explains its plan to expand its corrosion technology program in a two-minute “elevator speech” at Mentor-Connect’s Technical Assistance Workshop in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. (Photo: David Hata)

Great teams know that having a seasoned coach can help them win.

That’s the basic idea behind Mentor-Connect, a National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded grant-writing and leadership development initiative. To help navigate NSF’s proposal requirements for its Advanced Technological Education (ATE) program, Mentor-Connect provides each college team with a mentor for nine months and a plethora of digital grant-writing resources.

This month, faculty, administrators and grant writers from 21 two-year colleges attended a Mentor-Connect’s technical assistance workshop in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, for hands-on training on how best to apply for ATE grants. The ATE program focuses on improving the quality of technicians in advanced technology fields, and it represents NSF’s largest investment in two-year colleges

The American Association of Community Colleges partners with the South Carolina ATE Center of Excellence on Mentor-Connect.

High-powered plans

The 21 mentee colleges for 2018 are Mentor-Connect’s sixth cohort and include for the first time a college from Puerto Rico (See sidebar); a Bellwether-award-winning college; and a college involved in Science Foundation Arizona’s Kickstarter project for Hispanic-serving institutions.

Johnston Community College (JCC) in North Carolina hopes to build on its One College model—for which it received the 2018 Bellwether Award in January — in the ATE grant proposal it plans to submit in October. Its Mentor-Connect team includes two faculty members, the college’s grant writer and the executive director of the college’s foundation.

The Johnston Community College Mentor-Connect team is developing an ATE grant proposal to expand its One College concept to prepare industrial maintenance and biotechnology technicians. (Photo: Johnston Community College)

To prepare for their conversations with industry partners and colleagues about their plans, JCC’s team members worked with mentor Elaine Johnson, principal investigator of the ATE-funded Bio-Link center, at the workshop to craft a two-minute “elevator speech” about their ideas for integrating cross-discipline skills in biotechnology and industrial maintenance. The two programs are taught on different JCC campuses, and the two faculty members on the Mentor-Connect team want to work together to create curricula that addresses the needs of two biotech companies with big expansion plans near the rural college.

Leslie Isenhour Holston, JCC biotechnology instructor, said biotech employers have told her they want to hire biotechnicians who can troubleshoot and resolve basic production issues. Referring to Brian E. Worley, director of advanced technology programs, who was seated at the conference table with her, she said, “His maintenance technicians would have a stronger resume and stronger skill set if they understood the life science piece, because everything they do is mission critical.”

Tweaking ideas

While JCC has obvious industry partners for its ATE proposal, the team for Phoenix College in Arizona was strategizing about how to gather input from the many finance, retail, and healthcare employers near its campus.

“We want to develop something that meets the needs of the main downtown Phoenix community,” said Nick Rouse, director of computer information systems. At the workshop, he and faculty member Greg Simpson developed a plan for a cybersecurity project that was a bit different from what they had initially envisioned.

“After this conference, things have changed because we learned so much more,” Simpson said, praising their mentor Mel Cossette, executive director of the ATE-funded National Resource Center for Materials Technology Education, for directing them to helpful websites, industry contacts and other ATE centers for information.

Many of the resources — checklists, webinars, budget tutorials, Q & As — that Mentor-Connect has created for its mentees are freely accessible through its online library.

Mentor-Connect fast facts: To date, 120 two-year colleges have participated in Mentor-Connect. Forty-four mentee colleges, or 69 percent of those that submitted proposals to the New-to-ATE track, have received NSF grants. Three mentee colleges have moved up to larger, second grants in the ATE program.

Phoenix College has participated in SFAz’s KickStarter program, which also receives ATE grant support. KickStarter guides faculty and staff at two-year Hispanic-serving institutions through an intensive, comprehensive technical assistance process that positions them “to compete successfully for federal funds focused on student recruitment and retention in STEM fields.”

Phoenix College is the pilot test for the collaboration between Mentor-Connect and SFAz.

Anita Grierson, an SFAz program officer for Community College STEM Pathways, lauded the Mentor-Connect’s experience, resources and support network within ATE. The enthusiasm and dedication of Phoenix College faculty made it a good fit for Mentor-Connect, she said.

“When we have a college that has been through our STEM planning and has a concept that they want to develop that’s appropriate for ATE, having them come into this support network I think it only strengthens that college and their ability … to sustain [their project] because of all the training, the strength, and the support of this community,” Grierson said.

Tell your story

Elaine Craft, Mentor Connect principal investigator, told all the mentees: “Our goal is for you to be successful.” She encouraged the mentees to convey their passion for their initiatives in the narrative of the grant proposals while paying attention to NSF’s technical requirements.

Craft also stressed that in addition to considering the intellectual merit and broader impact of their ideas, NSF reviewers for the ATE program “are interested in industry demand and that you can fill it.”

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During plenary sessions, Mentor-Connect leaders covered various topics like project budgets, evaluations and industry partnerships. All the mentee teams participated in mock panel reviews that mimic the NSF proposal review process.

The teams also worked for hours one-on-one with their mentors, fleshing out their ideas to address their colleges’ technician education challenges and planning how to complete their proposals for the October 4 deadline.

Get started ahead of time

Administrators and grant writers also had special sessions that explained their roles in the faculty-driven proposal process.

Jerry Adams found that Craft’s session for grant writers was especially helpful in clarifying the timeline for projects submitting in the New-to-ATE track. Adams, who writes grants and teaches short-term energy code and efficiency courses at Calhoun Community College in Alabama, said it was a revelation to him that the college should begin work now on the courses it hopes to implement with NSF funding.

“If you don’t start developing those things until the grant starts, then if you have a three-year grant, you’ve really only got a year or year and a half, or something like that, to get the results, especially if you have classes that are in sequence,” Adams said.

Samuel Pizano and Chris Lemon of Texas State Technical College work on an ATE grant proposal at the Mentor-Connect workshop. (Photo: David Hata)

Adams, who worked for 30 years as an engineer, said that he sees a strong business case for the college to invest in preparing faculty and developing the new courses at the same time that it is writing the ATE grant proposal.

Samuel Pizano, lead instructor of architecture and engineering technology at Texas State Technical College, was even more enthusiastic.

“This was the best conference I’ve ever been to,” he said, adding it was “extremely informative; everything that was given to us, we are going to be able to use.”

About the Author

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