Developing dynamic professional relationships

Cascadia College students develop a building automation control application using kits purchased with funding from MentorLinks. (Photo: Annie Aldrich)

Gail M. Alexander accomplished many things as a MentorLinks mentee from October 2017 to November 2019. But she is most proud of rethinking the environmental technologies and sustainable practices (ETSP) curriculum, adding a hands-on automated building controls lab, and creating a new energy data analyst certificate at Cascadia College in Washington.

The nine students enrolled in the building controls course in fall 2019 provided evidence that Alexander had also made progress on her student diversity goals: three of the students were people of color; five were women; and three were veterans.

Editor’s note: This article continues a series focusing on MentorLinks, a program funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and managed by the American Association of Community Colleges.

As the ETSP program’s leader and only full-time instructor, Alexander describes herself as “siloed” prior to MentorLinks. She said the professional development programs that her MentorLinks mentor Roger Ebbage encouraged her to attend expanded her professional network in her field and other disciplines.  Ebbage is an instructor and director of the energy management and water conservation program at Lane Community College in Oregon.

“My understanding of the content grew with the network,” Alexander said. The people she has learned from since October 2017, when she attended her first MentorLinks Meeting and Advanced Technological Education (ATE) Principal Investigators’ Conference, also validated what she had been doing to prepare technicians to manage high-performance buildings system.

Tapping ‘intellectual capital’

These dynamic professional relationships were evident at the 2019 MentorLinks meeting where Alexander conferred with a colleague at another community college about a three-college sustainable building collaboration they are developing. A few minutes later, she was talking with another MentorLinks mentee about his student recruitment strategies.

“It’s exciting to be around so much intellectual capital and so many people doing such so many interesting things. It’s inspiring,” she said of the MentorLinks mentees and the many people she had met at the ATE Principal Investigators’ Conferences. Because MentorLinks is an ATE project, its mentees attend the professional meeting that AACC convenes for ATE principal investigators and the people who staff ATE projects and centers to share their findings and promising practices.

Alexander marveled at how far she had come since she arrived at her first MentorLinks meeting with a list of 60 different things that her program graduates could do. During her first in-person meeting with Ebbage, he suggested clarifying the program’s priorities by focusing on the jobs ETSP graduates are most likely to get. From this shorter list, Alexander identified the skills those jobs demand. At Ebbage’s direction, she then conferred with commercial building managers near Seattle and community college educators nationally.

Related article: MentorLinks provides colleges with opportunities

That process led to her to identify building controls as the critical, common technology she needed to make sure her students mastered. This, in turn, led to her creating the building operations automated systems certificate program.

Alexander used a portion of the $20,000 MentorLinks award to buy 15 controller kits for students to use. In addition to a mentor, AACC provides each MentorLinks college with $20,000, travel support and technical resources from its ATE grant from the National Science Foundation.

Because Ebbage connected Alexander to numerous professional development programs that covered her attendance costs with their ATE grants, Alexander said, “That $20,000 investment in me was more like $30,000.”

Steady interest in mechatronics

Southeastern Community College in North Carolina plans to continue growing enrollment in the mechatronics program that it started with the guidance of MentorLinks mentor Jim Hyder. Hyder is an instructional designer at Seward County Community College in Kansas and the lead adjunct faculty in the STEM Department at Rio Salado College in Arizona.

Mechatronics program enrollments doubled from nine students in 2018-2019 to 18 students in 2019-2020. The first cohort of second-year students have been placed in internships for their capstone experiences, reported Angela Ransom, dean of academic affairs. The other member of the MentorLinks project team is Jeff Hester, mechatronics engineering technology instructor.

The 2+2+2 agriculture/food science program

Wayne Busch, a biology and animal science instructor at Riverland Community College in Minnesota, and Ryan Langemeier, dean of academic affairs, used advice from their MentorLinks mentor Kenneth A. Walz to lay the groundwork for a program that focuses on quality control and food safety. During the past two years, they expanded the number of high schools that offer concurrent enrollment of the college’s agriculture and food science courses and developed articulation agreements with three, four-year colleges. Walz is the director of the Center for Renewable Energy Advanced Technological Education at Madison Area Technical College in Wisconsin.

They needed more funds to achieve the 2+2+2 agriculture/food science program they envision with students moving seamlessly from high school, through Riverland and on to four-year colleges. So, the Riverland team applied for and was selected to receive Mentor-Connect mentoring and technical assistance to write an ATE grant proposal this year. Mentor-Connect is an ATE project led by the South Carolina Advanced Technological Education Center at Florence-Darlington Technical College in partnership with the American Association of Community Colleges.

Focused on recruitment

Rockingham Community College in North Carolina devoted its MentorLinks grant to professional development for Tim Isley, a novice instructor of computer-integrated machining, and to improve its manufacturing lab. Recruitment efforts suggested by mentor Richard Polanin, a retired Illinois Central College professor, made progress with enrollment growing from 13 students in fall 2018 to 20 in fall 2019.

Other Rockingham team members are Louis McIntyre, project director for Title III, and Christopher Brooks, chair of the applied technologies department.

About the Author

Madeline Patton
is an education writer based in Ohio.