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STEM education in action

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Selena Flores, a student at St. Philip's College (Texas), explains the advanced manufacturing curriculum that the Automotive Manufacturing Technical Education Collaborative developed with Toyota Motor Corp.

Photo: James Tkatch

​The 60 students selected to attend the 2015 Advanced Technological Education (ATE) Principal Investigators Conference reflect the diversity of community college populations, and their projects exemplify the variety of advanced technology educational opportunities the National Science Foundation (NSF) program supports.

Consider just three of the student exhibits that were featured during a showcase session last month during the three-day conference in Washington, D.C.

Austin HeavyRunner, a construction technology student whose backyard borders Glacier National Park, explained his work on a microhydroelectric generator. He and other students at Blackfeet Community College experimented with renewable energy equipment they created from repurposed materials. Their activities were part of the 2015 Summer Energy Technology Practicum that Missoula College-University of Montana offered at the tribal college in Browning, Mont.

Survey: Big benefits from ATE programs

Farther down the exhibit hall, Selena Flores of St. Philip's College (Texas) described the manufacturing courses she started taking as a high school student using curriculum developed by the Automotive Manufacturing Technical Education Collaborative. Now in the fourth semester of a five-semester advanced manufacturing program, Flores attends classes full time and has a paid internship with Toyota.

“I feel so empowered,” she said of her experience learning to read blueprints and operate a wide variety of equipment. 

New experiences 

Three rows over Joshua Kimmel explained his suggestion for relocating the brake on a milling machine so it would be safer for him and other people in wheelchairs to operate. Kimmel earned a certificate through the Advancing Inclusive Manufacturing project, the ATE-supported initiative that prepares people with disabilities to begin manufacturing careers.

Kimmel said he liked learning the basics of machining while simultaneously informing researchers’ studies at the Human Engineering Research Laboratories, a multi-institution facility that develops products to assist people with mobility limitations. Completing the 12-week program encouraged Kimmel to enroll at the Community College of Alleghany County; he has also been hired as a technician at the lab in Pittsburgh.

Kenneth A. Walz, a long-time ATE principal investigator, says students’ participation in the ATE Principal Investigators Conference opens their eyes to other STEM fields and disciplines.

Walz, a chemistry and engineering instructor at Madison Area Technical College (MATC) who has been involved in four large ATE project grants at the Wisconsin college, has brought 16 MATC students to the conference during the past decade. Almost all were first-generation college students who had not previously visited Washington, D.C. Several had not even flown before.

Among peers and professionals

Presenting their work to multiple STEM professionals was also a new experience. During a typical 90-minute showcase, each student had one-on-one conversations with a couple dozen STEM professionals.

“The experience of compiling their data, creating a poster and then presenting it at the showcase session places students in the role of an expert. This is not something easily accomplished in a traditional education setting,” he wrote in an email. 

Cultivating problem solvers

Walz noted that for several of the students the experience was “an important milestone” in their academic careers. “Participation in the PI conference encourages community college students to pursue higher academic and career goals, and to push themselves further than they would have previously aspired,” he said.  

Most of the MATC students who have attended the conference were in degree transfer programs and have pursued bachelor’s degrees in STEM fields. One alumnus completed a summer internship at Ames National Laboratory. Two former student attendees have earned doctorates and a third is currently in graduate school. Others have talked to Walz about going to graduate school. (See story about a Ph.D. engineer who attended an ATE Principal Investigators Conference and now teaches at MATC.)   

The American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) provides scholarships to students nominated by the principal investigators of ATE projects. The scholarships, funded with NSF-ATE support, cover conference registration and two nights in a hotel. The students’ colleges cover their travel costs.

Ready for the real world

Each year, NSF-ATE program officers meet the students individually at a breakfast where they award the students certificates. This year, AACC arranged for the students to learn about global career readiness from Donald McCoy, an IBM engineer and manager for 30 years before retiring and becoming a K-to-College STEM education consultant.

McCoy tailored his presentation to the students’ interests and offered advice on balancing parenting responsibilities with career plans, leveraging military experiences and obtaining internships.

He shared his personal experiences of working on global teams and offered practical advice on everything from preparing for job interviews to dealing with cultural differences. McCoy emphasized that employers want to hire people who work effectively on teams, make decisions and solve problems. 

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