A Philly partnership focused on STEM students, workforce

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Though community colleges have increased their ability to prepare workers for STEM-related fields through various programs and partnerships, they are still underused and “unidentified” resources to strengthen the country’s STEM workforce, according to the president of the Community College of Philadelphia (CCP).

“Community colleges are filled with diamonds in the rough” whose students are often held back by lack of finances, family and community support, or an education background that didn’t prepare them for the rigors of higher education, said CCP President Donald “Guy” Generals, who spoke Monday in a town-hall webinar on how CCP is cultivating successes in STEM education, research and workforce preparation.

In terms of CCP’s role, Drexel University President John Fry, who last year was board chair of the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, was straightforward about it.

“I don’t think there is a more important institution in the city right now, given our talent development needs, than the Community College of Philadelphia,” he said. “We wish we had two or three CCPs in the city. We desperately need more capacity.”

Plenty of potential

Despite success through many nationally renowned STEM-related (science, technology, engineering and math) programs that focus on community college students — such as the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Advanced Technological Education program and the Community College Innovation Challenge — public two-year colleges are often still overlooked in national discussions about STEM workforce development.

Community colleges serve 41% of all U.S. undergraduates — including 53% of Hispanic undergrads — but they still face stereotypes that they cater mainly to adult learners or vocational trades, Generals said. In a global economy that will likely vastly change because of Covid, realizing the potential of community colleges and their students is crucial, especially in STEM.

“If we are to compete into the 21st century, we must do better at recruiting, retaining and graduating more underrepresented minority students into the sciences,” he said, noting it is vital for more STEM organizations to acknowledge this, which is why the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine sponsoring the webinar was so important.

One successful way CCP has drawn students into STEM is through a general education science course requirement, Generals said. It has provided students an opportunity to learn about those fields, he said.

“I’m always in awe in the number of students who were not even interested or had science on their radar” prior to the course, he said.

Generals also sees the potential that is lost when students drop out. About 3,000 CCP students annually drop classes after qualifying for student aid, registering for classes and finalizing their schedules. They leave for myriad reasons, including an inability to buy books, secure transportation and childcare, and other basic needs.

“We view this as a national tragedy that that many students are walking away because of cost,” Generals said.

Using all resources

CCP tapped an array of programs and partnerships to improve its support to help STEM students succeed. These include guided pathways, Achieving the Dream and federal programs such as Title III.

It also is among nine Philadelphia-area institutions that teamed through an NSF Louis Stokes Alliances of Minority Participation (AMP) grant. Some of those institutions include Drexel, the University of Pennsylvania, Temple University, the University of Delaware and others. Together, the Philly program graduates about 1,000 minority students a year who are involved in the STEM fields, up from about 200 when the partnership started in 1994, said Drexel’s Fry.

Last year, 67 CCP students transferred to Drexel, and Fry hopes those numbers will continue to increase.

“We see this as generational work; not a project, but as a long-term commitment by our institutions,” he said.

Building on what’s there

The AMP infrastructure has been successful, but Fry noted that much work remains, including expanding the program and tapping into growing and emerging industries, including advanced manufacturing, functional fabrics, biomedical technology, and cell and gene therapy. One of the challenges is to ensure these sectors have the diverse workforce they need to succeed.

“I think the future is all about more partnerships. Luckily, we are set up as a partnership, so we know how to do this work,” Fry said. “What we need to do is just extend ourselves into some of these really interesting research and education-based opportunities.”

He noted the “raw material in terms of talent” is there; They have to connect the networks and provide the supports for students, he said.

That includes strengthening the education pipeline and providing a seamless STEM path from K-20, Fry said. Showing students the benefits of science and STEM careers earlier in their education is important. Drexel recently opened a K-8 school with 810 students. The middle school is a science leadership academy.

“That’s exactly the group of kids that we want to start getting excited by the science opportunities that they have,” he said.

Hands-on opportunities

A later session in the webinar covered programs developed between CCP and other institutions, in particular the college’s partnership with the Wistar Institute, which researches in the areas of cancer, immunology and infectious disease. The organization has a successful biomedical technician program with CCP that started about 20 years ago.

CCP academically prepares students and vets them for the biomedical technician training program, and the institute provides the technical training. Students are mentored in the labs in small groups — two to three students — over two, six-week paid internships during the summer. Wistar also provides resume and interview workshops for participants.

Coordinators noted the diversity and success of the program’s students: 72% of participants complete the program, 52% are students of color and 71% are women. Nearly 65% of participants continue with their postsecondary learning beyond an associate degree.

Wistar has since established a nine-month biomedical research technician registered apprenticeship program, with the biomedical tech program serving as a pre-apprenticeship.

One of the remaining challenges is raising awareness of such the programs.

“A lot of time students don’t know these programs exist,” said Dominic Salerno, an assistant biology professor at CCP.

Monday’s webinar also included students and alumni, who now work as community college professors, university researchers, entrepreneurs and analysts in business and industry.

About the Author

Matthew Dembicki
is editor of Community College Daily and serves as publications director for the American Association of Community Colleges.