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If community colleges wanted a clearer signal regarding how important they are to the future of a highly skilled workforce, they got one last week with a full-day summit on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) sponsored by the federal government.
Although the Dec. 15 summit in Washington, D.C., was titled “Community Colleges in the Evolving STEM Education Landscape,” it was not limited to just two-year colleges and their supporters. The National Academies event included leaders from four-year institutions, K-12, government agencies and organizations who focused on a system approach to encourage more students to pursue careers in STEM fields. Featured speakers included Institute of Medicine President Harvey Fineberg, U.S. Education Under Secretary Martha Kanter and Freeman Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
Attendees discussed expanding access to STEM programs and linking STEM to the workforce. They also looked at how community colleges can broaden minority participation in STEM, mentoring in STEM and next steps to take.
Expanding transfer pathways
A central discussion was improving the process for community colleges transferring to four-year institutions. Many times, transfer students don’t get the outreach or mentoring needed to succeed at a four-year college, said panelist Becky Wai-Ling Packard from Mount Holyoke College. She recommended coordinated approaches to outreach between high schools, community colleges and four-year institutions, noting that the National Science Foundation’s Advanced Technological Education program is a gold standard that can be replicated.
“Transfer is a shared issue, not a community college issue,” Packard said.
Transfer pathways also need to be widened, noted Alicia Dowd, associate education professor at the University of Southern California. Expanded pathways will allow better access for all students and greater diversity in STEM fields.
Too often, transfer students are not viewed as a “prestigious group,” Dowd said. Professional development for faculty and administration at four-year colleges can help to break those misconceptions, she said.
Dowd also recommended more financial resources for transfer students, such as public and private STEM transfer scholarships. STEM work-study programs can not only help students financially, but further engage them in STEM fields, she added.
Mentoring can also play a significant role in student persistence, especially for transfer students. It was a professor mentor who helped Packard succeed in college. And investing in mentoring is “an investment in the nation’s workforce,” Packard said.
Math reforms needed
Math reform was another hot topic at the summit. Student persistence can hinge on math, particularly if those students are in developmental courses. Reforming two-year college math is necessary, but so far it has been “slow and uneven,” said panelist Debra Bragg, a professor and community college researcher at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Bragg made several recommendations, including taking a P-20 approach to reforming the curriculum. The essential sectors would come together to discuss reform, rather than each sector implementing separate reforms that aren’t linked, she said.
Researching both math students and the teaching and learning of math can foster better support for students and faculty. Bragg also advocated for engaging two-year faculty in active research to help them better understand the effects of math education.
“Math faculty would be hungry and excited to participate in this research,” Bragg said.
Getting math courses out of the way early can help, too. When students can complete college-level math courses in high school, persistence in college and in STEM improves, Packard said.
“Both honors and struggling students can benefit” from dual-enrollment programs, she said.
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