Paying it forward

Jonathan Beck (center) listens during a small group discussion at a Mentor-Connect workshop. (Photos: Tynisha Ferguson)

NEW ORLEANS — There is evidence that Mentor-Connect leaders’ plan for a regenerative leadership development system for community college STEM faculty is working.

Two of Mentor-Connect’s five new Mentor Fellows — Sharon Gusky and Jonathan Beck —  were previously Mentor-Connect mentees. Both work at rural community colleges that never won Advanced Technological Education (ATE) grants from the National Science Foundation prior to the proposals they wrote a few years ago with Mentor-Connect’s guidance. Another former Mentor-Connect mentee, Ken Mays, is mentoring two Mentor-Connect teams this year; he was a Mentor Fellow in 2019.

A key hypothesis for Mentor-Connect — it, too, is an ATE-funded experiment that researchers are studying — is that new STEM education leaders can be developed through the ATE program.

“We initiated the project (Mentor-Connect) because we felt like project development, grant proposal writing and submission, negotiating with your college, (industry) partners and NSF, and serving as a spokesperson for new ideas both locally and nationally, would develop STEM leaders among you,” Elaine Craft, principal investigator of Mentor-Connect, said during her opening remarks at the Winter 2020 Technical Assistance and Grant Writing Workshop. Mentor-Connect intentionally weaves leadership skills, such as systems thinking, into grant-writing instruction offered by its mentors and in its webinars.

Making an impact

While all five of this year’s Mentor Fellows have had leadership roles in successful ATE initiatives, Craft is particularly proud of the accomplishments of Gusky and Beck. Gusky has led two ATE projects in manufacturing at Northwestern Connecticut Community College, and leveraged her ATE grant-writing experience to obtain other grants since she was a Mentor-Connect mentee in 2012.

Beck has led three ATE grants since he was a Mentor-Connect mentee in 2014. In 2019, he became the principal investigator of the new National Center for Autonomous Technologies (NCAT) when NSF awarded a $7 million grant to Northland Community and Technical College in Minnesota. NCAT is developing a multi-disciplinary approach to prepare technicians for careers working on unmanned vehicles that operate on land, sea or air.

Related article: The trek to Mentor-Connect

In separate interviews, Gusky and Beck said gratitude for Mentor-Connect led them to be Mentor Fellows.

Mentor Fellows will “shadow” experienced Mentor-Connect mentors during the next nine months. Mentors offer guidance to mentees during two in-person workshops and during periodic conference calls and emails with the mentee teams, which typically include two faculty members and sometimes include grant writers and administrators. Completing the fellowship is a pre-requisite to becoming a Mentor-Connect mentor in the future.

“I wanted to give back because Mentor-Connect was wonderful,” Gusky said. She is a biology professor at Northwestern Connecticut Community College, chair of the Connecticut Community College Center for Teaching, and president of the National Association of Biology Teachers.

Creating a strong base

Gusky said what she and a colleague learned through Mentor-Connect was essential for them in obtaining a $199,960 ATE grant to start an associate-degree program in manufacturing. In addition to addressing 40 manufacturers’ needs for technicians, Gusky said, “It’s been great for the college to strengthen (community) connections and to build a new pathway for students, and provide professional development for the high school teachers.”

In 2018, Gusky became the principal investigator of a $718,077 ATE grant that introduces teens to technical careers and provides teachers with industry-based externships.

Sharon Gusky (right), principal investigator of the Engaging Students from Classrooms and Camps to College and Advanced Technological Careers project at Northwestern Connecticut Community College, works with a mentee.

Gusky said Mentor-Connect’s grant-writing lessons helped her obtain other external support, including funding for a program to recruit women and girls to manufacturing careers.

Beck, an unmanned aircraft system instructor at Northland, attributes his three successful ATE grant proposals (NSF Award Awards 1501629, 1700615 and 1902574) to what he learned through Mentor-Connect.

“Being involved in the ATE community over the last six years, this (Mentor-Connect) has been a really important part of my professional development and experience in education,” he said.

Although he is busy starting NCAT, Beck said he wanted to be a Mentor Fellow this year to help others access “the great community that exists of people who are really innovative and looking to be change agents based on emerging technology and what’s going on in industry and what we need to do in education.”

Beck also likes interacting with other community college educators who want to lead improvements in technician education.

“The people who are driven to come to this program, who may or may not have a full understanding of what ATE is about, all seem to share the drive for innovation, that passion for work, that (desire to be a) change-agent as a result of advancing and emerging technology,” he said.

Sharpening their ideas

The three other community college faculty members who are serving as Mentor Fellows this year are:

Ken Mays, the first Mentor-Connect mentee to be a Mentor Fellow and now a mentor, thinks the structure of the workshop helps mentees channel their passion for their discipline into a grant proposal. Mays is the principal investigator of the Northwest Engineering and Vehicle Technology Exchange project at Central Oregon Community College.

The mentees’ emotional investment in their ideas punctuates the two-minute “elevator speech” summaries that each team gives at the workshop. Writing the speeches helps teams clarify their vision for improving technician education and provides them with the talking points to explain their plans to colleagues, administrators and industry partners.

“That’s incredibly rewarding to be able to be part of that development. You do it with your students all the time,” Mays said, explaining that he finds Mentor-Connect fulfilling on a different plain because it facilitates the work of community college educators who are tackling national workforce challenges. “I feel honored to be a part of this whole process.”

About the Author

Madeline Patton
is an education writer based in Ohio.