A ‘safe place’ to explore STEM careers

Victor R. McCrary, chair of the National Science Board’s Task Force on the Skilled Technical Workforce, talks with students during a listening session at the ATE Principal Investigators Conference in Washington, D.C. (Photo: AACC)

Community college students had an unusual opportunity to share their opinions with policymakers recently when members of the National Science Board’s Task Force on the Skilled Technical Workforce held a “listening session.”

Victor R. McCrary, chair of the Task Force on the Skilled Technical Workforce, said the small-group discussions at the 2018 Advanced Technological Education (ATE) Principal Investigators Conference that he other National Science Board members and staffers had with 62 students were “a thumbs-up for the ATE program.”

ATE grants, which the National Science Foundation (NSF) awards through a competitive process, fund innovative efforts to prepare technicians for advanced technology workplaces and provide resources for educators who teach STEM technicians. The ATE program is NSF’s largest investment in associate-degree-granting institutions; the National Science Board governs NSF.

The American Association of Community Colleges, with NSF support, hosted the annual ATE conference in Washington, D.C., which drew in 900 educators, industry partners, government officials and students.

Busting the stigma

In an interview with CC Daily, McCrary — who is vice chancellor for research at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville — said that students told him how ATE programs have helped them develop particular technical skills and described the ways their community colleges have provided “safe spaces” for them to think about various careers.

“Students do believe that there are multiple paths to a successful career and into the middle class,” he said.

At the listening session and others that the task force has held during the past 12 months with educators, employers and incumbent technicians at Baton Rouge Community College in Louisiana, Macomb Community College in Michigan, and Florence-Darlington Technical College in South Carolina, McCrary said there have been comments about the stigma of earning less than a four-year degree.

Making sure that guidance counselors’ and parents’ definitions of “going to college” include attending community and technical colleges would help eliminate this stigma and raise awareness about the value of everyone in the STEM technical workforce, McCray said.

He pointed out that professional societies are among entities using more positive terms such “postsecondary” rather than “sub-baccalaureate” when referring to two-year degrees and apprenticeships.

STEM gems

McCray said that when the task force visited NSF’s Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory in Louisiana, he was impressed by the facility’s eminent scientists and highly skilled technicians.

“As a team, they together help us conquer the forefronts of science. So you need both,” he said.

2018 ATE conference: Keeping up with industry

The cross-industry partnerships and collaboration of multiple education sectors that are hallmarks of the ATE program were evident at the two other listening tour sites that have ATE center grants. Macomb Community College is the lead institution for the Center for Advanced Automotive Technology, and Florence Darlington-Technical College is the site for the South Carolina Advanced Technology Education Center of Excellence (SCATE). A SCATE leader also serves as a co-principal investigator of the Center for Aviation and Automotive Technological Education Using Virtual E-Schools at Clemson University in South Carolina.

McCray noted that there seems to consensus to create a STEM workforce that can help the nation compete globally. He also praised NSF leaders’ efforts to diversify the STEM workforce by funding STEM education initiatives at all levels and types of education institutions, as well as encouraging the participation of minorities who have been underrepresented in STEM workplaces.

“All contributions and all folks are valuable to our pursuit of science and technology,” he said.

About the Author

Madeline Patton
is an education writer based in Ohio.