MentorLinks provides colleges with opportunities

Value-Environmental Services, which employs a graduate of St. Peterburg College’s environmental science technology program, donated the materials and labor to install a well to teach students environmental sampling and analysis. The college purchased additional equipment with MentorLinks funds. (Photo: SPC)

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

During its first year in MentorLinks program, the team from St. Petersburg College in Florida streamlined its environmental science technology program to benefit students and the college.

The process began in 2017-2018 with an examination of the three tracks within the college’s associate of science degree in environmental science. Low enrollment was a challenge in some specialized courses, even with program enrollment of more than 500 students, explained Maura Scanlon, director of Project GEST–Growing Environmental Science Technology in Tampa Bay. So, she and Amanda Gilleland, chair of the natural sciences department, began with this issue when they met their MentorLinks mentor Kathleen Alfano. Alfano is the co-principal investigator of the Center for Renewable Energy Advanced Technological Education Center (CREATE).

Alfano suggested creating academic pathways that simultaneously address workforce needs and boost the curriculum. The team decided to combine the energy and environmental sustainability programs into a new environmental resources conservation path. This rearrangement resulted in specialized courses that cover renewable energy, pollution prevention and urban planning that previously had just two to four students now have five to 15 students. Core course enrollments have increased from an average of 18 to about 40 students.

“It’s not where we want it to be, but …” Scanlon said. “It’s getting there,” Gilleland completed her statement.

Myriad benefits

The water resource management track continues to prepare people for careers managing wastewater and drinking water systems, and monitoring natural resources. However, the close look at course offerings led the team to revise four courses to align them with state requirements for a water quality technician certificate.

St. Petersburg College launched its version of the certificate program in fall 2018; the first student completed it in May 2019.

Scanlon said the professional development programs, which she attended with funding from the college’s $20,000 MentorLinks award, have influenced other curriculum changes that quickly benefited students. For instance, Scanlon became a certified hazardous materials trainer through a program offered by the Advanced Technology Environmental Education Center at the Eastern Iowa Community Colleges. In 2019, five students she instructed qualified for hazardous waste operations and emergency response certification.

“The professional development and the travel — that was all MentorLinks, and that was just valuable in networking, getting to know different people and all the resources available,” Scanlon said.

The St. Petersburg team is now creating an advanced GIS certificate. Preliminary work has been done on an ATE grant proposal based on what Scanlon learned at an NSF-supported grant-writing workshop for two-year college faculty at the College of the Canyons in California.

Shifting gears to build an agriculture program

Information from community and industry partners led the MentorLinks team at Ozarks Technical Community College in Missouri to create eight new small engine courses. These courses were added to the existing turf and landscape management program for a new 32-credit outdoor power/power sports certificate for technicians of utility task vehicles (UTVs). UTVs are increasingly used by farmers, ranchers, commercial landscapers, golf courses, government agencies and hobbyists.

When Ozarks Tech applied to MentorLinks, the plan was to add biotech to the college’s agriculture program. But mentor Jenni Fridgen encouraged the Advancing Agriculture project team to survey employers first to ensure that curriculum changes would match workforce needs. Fridgen is the agriculture program director at Parkland College in Illinois.

Fridgen’s MentorLinks site visit was also critical to the agriculture program improvements, said Gavin O’Connor, director of the Advancing Agriculture project and assistant vice chancellor for academic affairs at Ozarks Tech. At the 2019 MentorLinks meeting, O’Connor explained that Fridgen’s insights were “very valuable” because administrators, faculty and employers viewed her as an “outsider” whose campus visit was funded by NSF through MentorLinks.

Site visits are a key aspect of MentorLinks, which provides funds for mentors to visit mentees’ colleges, and for mentees to visit the mentors’ colleges or other two-year colleges that has accomplished goals similar to those the mentee hopes to achieve.

In addition to O’Connor, the Ozarks Tech team included Danelle Maxwell, chair of the manufacturing department, and Rob Flatness, chair of the construction technology department.

Adding an engineering tech degree

Seminole State College of Florida achieved its primary MentorLinks goal by adding an applied associate of science degree in engineering technology that prepares students for middle management positions in industry and business.

Jarrod Tollett, associate professor of mathematics/science/engineering, said he hopes the development of this program with guidance from mentor Kevin Cooper will serve as a model when the college creates other degree programs. Cooper is principal investigator of the Regional Center for Nuclear Education & Training at Indian River State College in Florida.

In the near term, the Engineering Curriculum for Applied Math and Physics for Undergraduate Students team at Seminole State is working on ways to increase student recruitment and to expand the industry advisory board to include a wider array of employers. In addition to Tollet, the team includes Linda Goeller, associate professor of mathematics and coordinator of assessment, and Brad Schatzel, business and education division chair.

About the Author

Madeline Patton
is an education writer based in Ohio.