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NSF gives kudos to advances at community colleges

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​High school senior Oscar Dorado explains to Robert Spear, principal investigator of CyberWatch at Prince George’s Community College in Maryland, how a team of students crafted a wind turbine to win the California Kid Wind Competition.

Photo: Madeline Patton

​When Kate Denniston highlights successes at community colleges, the deputy director at National Science Foundation points to her own family: Her son earned a culinary arts degree and is now a sous chef, and her daughter has degree in automotive technology, transferred to a four-year college and is currently enrolled in a doctoral program in physics.

Denniston also points to her own experience, citing positive professional collaborations with community colleges when she was a university professor.

Speaking last week at the Advanced Technological Education (ATE) Principal Investigators Conference in Washington, D.C., Denniston—who serves in NSF’s Division of Undergraduate Education—said her family is a microcosm of community colleges’ workforce and transfer roles, noting that the future success of students on both tracks relies “on the solid foundations laid at the community college.”

Making headway

Denniston noted that at President Barack Obama’s direction, NSF increased community college funding from $75 million to $100 million in fiscal year 2012. The ATE program—a competitive, NSF grant program to improve technician education in advanced technology fields of national, strategic importance—received $64 million and nearly $38 million went to research grants and other studies related to community colleges.

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That’s a big shift from 1992, when ATE was instituted—there was almost no NSF money going toward public two-year colleges, Denniston said.

“It’s a real tribute to the work that’s been going on at the community college [level]. I think the ATE program is the one that has allowed that success. It is the pioneers in the ATE program that have laid down the foundational, institutional infrastructure for competing for grants and established the scholarship for those grants,” she said.

Proving its worth

Joan Ferrini-Mundy, assistant director of the Directorate for Education and Human Resources at NSF, said ATE has “all the possible components one could want in an NSF-supported program.” 

She noted the ATE program:

  • Cuts across disciplines.
  • Covers the centrality of undergraduate institutions and their junction with high schools.
  • Prepares the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) workforce and teachers.
  • Enrolls diverse students.
  • Connects with industry.
  • Encompasses research.

“I commend you for the outstanding work that you have been doing,” she said to the nearly 900 conference attendees. “We look to you to continue to provide this leadership in the two-year and community college arena because this is really a central set of examples and exemplary work for what the National Science Foundation wishes to advance.”

A strong partnership

While welcoming at the opening plenary the ATE principal investigators, their industry partners and 43 students showcasing their ATE projects, Walter Bumphus, president and CEO of the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), said AACC is proud of its 19-year collaboration with NSF on the annual conference, which has become a major networking event for community college educators involved in preparing technicians for advanced technology fields. 

He also encouraged community college educators to make the most of the national spotlight that is shining on their institutions.

“We’ve never had a time when community colleges have been featured so prominently,” Bumphus said.

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