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Leveraging MentorLinks for funding, broader outreach


Shawn Payne, a mechatronics instructor and principal investigator of a federal Advanced Technological Education grant, explains how a Lego Mindstorms Robot works to students at a STEM academy that the college hosted in October.

Photo: Owensboro Community and Technical College

See related video at the end of this article.

​Outcomes talk, and a Kentucky community college has the data to show that a federally funded program designed to pair colleges to learn from each other in the area of technical education is yielding results. And those results have helped the college win other grants to expand its efforts.

Since Owensboro Community and Technical College (OCTC) received a $15,000 MentorLinks grant in 2005 from the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), the college has garnered two National Science Foundation-Advanced Technological Education (NSF-ATE) grants totaling more than $1 million. With guidance from its MentorLinks college partner from 2005-07, OCTC revamped its mechatronics curriculum and purchased $1 million in new mechatronics equipment with federal Perkins funds and state funding.

That kind of funding only becomes available with results, and the college has that, too. More than 200 students have taken the modularized mechatronics program, which was the focus of the MentorLinks grant and the first NSF-ATE grant for $597,870 that OCTC received in 2007. Now several hundred elementary and secondary school students are participating in STEM clubs and robotics competitions, and several dozen educators receive professional development thanks to OCTC second NSF-ATE grant. The college received this $672,286 grant for its Discover STEM—Generation Innovation program in 2011.

“Participating in MentorLinks is why we have two NSF grants,” said Christi Midkiff, director of grants and contracts at OCTC. She served as the administrator on the college's two-person team mentored by Rassoul Dastmozd, who is now president of St. Paul College in Minnesota.

Paying it forward

More difficult to measure though quite visible is OCTC’s replication of the MentorLinks style of mentoring. The initiative pairs experienced community college educators, who are experts in the technical fields that colleges want to improve, with a mentee team comprising a faculty member and an administrator.

Tips for NSF grant proposals

Over the two-year grant, mentors and mentees interact face-to-face at least once a year during two days of structured meetings before the annual ATE Principal Investigators conference, which they also attend together. The teams also confer periodically via phone and email and visit each other’s campuses or other colleges that have successfully launched innovative technician education programs.

Mentees may use their grants for other professional development or for other expenses that support technician education.

MentorLinks also facilitates networking between the cohorts of mentees and mentors who have participated in the program, which AACC has offered since 2002 with support from NSF-ATE. Several of the previous mentors now serve as ‘master mentors” advising on recruiting students, building industry partnerships and marketing.    

From student to project lead 

OCTC’s modeling of MentorLinks’ effective practices is led by Shawn Payne, assistant professor of mechatronics at OCTC and principal investigator of the college’s second NSF-ATE grant. He was an unemployed tool-and-die maker when OCTC began offering the mechatronics courses it modularized with MentorLinks. 

“At the time, I thought my world ended,” Payne said of the experience of losing his job to cheaper, foreign labor.

Dean Autry, the faculty mentee during MentorLinks and now associate dean of academic affairs, suggested Payne take the five mechatronics that combine online instruction of advanced manufacturing technologies with hands-on lessons at the college’s open lab. Payne went on to earn an associate degree in electrical technology and industrial maintenance, with financial support from a government program for displaced workers.

Payne was working again in manufacturing when OCTC had an opening for a mechatronics instructor. He was hired and his teaching duties included taking mechatronics kits to middle schools as part of the outreach and recruitment of underrepresented minorities under the college’s first NSF-ATE grant.

OCTC was also working with the Owensboro Museum of Science and History when it ran out of funding for its FIRST Lego League program.

So many teachers requested hands-on programming that Payne and Midkiff wrote the proposal for the second NSF-ATE grant. It was funded as Discover STEM—Generation Innovation, and takes OCTC’s outreach efforts statewide.

“We wanted to take what we had learned and share it with other colleges in Kentucky so that they could do the same thing to get more young people involved in STEM to progress through a STEM pipeline, and who want to go to college to study in a STEM field. We felt that FIRST Tech was that way,” said Midkiff, who was the administrator on OCTC’s mentee team during MentorLinks.

Discover STEM uses MentorLinks-style mentoring processes in several ways: 

  • Elementary school students on FIRST Lego League teams interact at times with teens who participated in this program when they were younger. 
  • OCTC and the Owensboro Museum of Science and History sponsor Discover STEM and mechatronics clubs.
  • OCTC helped to start FIRST Tech Challenge teams for high school students. (The 2012 world championship team came from a Louisville, Ky., school which had borrowed a mechatronics kit from OCTC.) 
  • The teachers, guidance counselors and parents who mentor the student teams receive professional development and mentoring from faculty from the six Kentucky community colleges participating in the project.
  • Payne and the OCTC team lead monthly conference calls with educators at the partner colleges to discuss challenges and successes in promoting STEM career pathways. 
  • OCTC offers a summer academy on its campus for middle school and high school students to learn mechatronics.
  • The college teaches secondary school educators how to incorporate FIRST robotics into their classroom instruction.

“Five or six years ago I didn’t necessarily know a whole lot of about the National Science Foundation and the MentorLinks grant. It’s just amazing how stuff works out,” Payne said.

 (Below, an overview of a Lego robotics program co-operated by Owensboro Community and Technical College that is partly funded through the college's NSF-ATE grant.)