MentorLinks helps instructor tackle big tasks

Seminole State College professors Linda Goeller and Jarrod Tollett (center) initially discussed their goal to start an engineering technology program with their MentorLinks mentor Kevin Cooper in 2017. (Photo: Madeline Patton)

This summer, the engineering technology program at Seminole State College (Oklahoma) will have its first graduate. It is an encouraging milestone for an associate degree program that started in 2018 with guidance and resources from MentorLinks, a program development initiative of the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC).  

Jarrod Tollett, associate professor of mathematics, science and engineering, said he is grateful for the mentoring that he and Linda Goeller received from Kevin Cooper from October 2017 to 2019. Goeller was a mathematics professor and division chair of science, technology and math when she participated in MentorLinks; she is now vice president for academic affairs.

Tollett identified two things that were critical to the program’s launch: Cooper’s advice to him and Goeller about how to gain insights from local high-tech employers, and Cooper’s explanation to Seminole college administrators about the faculty time and institutional resources needed to start an engineering technology program.  

“If I hadn’t gotten the outside help, I don’t think I would necessarily be here today,” Tollett said during a recent interview. He was assigned with creating the new degree without having any experience in program development.

“Working with Kevin Cooper was absolutely a wonderful experience,” Tollett said.

Cooper is dean of advanced technology at Indian River State College (Florida) and principal investigator of the Regional Center for Nuclear Education and Training. Cooper’s experience leading a center funded with grant support from the National Science Foundation’s Advanced Technological Education program is typical of the expertise of MentorLinks mentors.

MentorLinks seeks proposals

AACC is accepting proposals for its next cohort of MentorLinks Colleges. The deadline is June 24.

MentorLinks aims to improve technician education programs in STEM fields by providing community college faculty with mentoring, valuable networking contacts, rich opportunities for technical assistance and professional development. Applicants should be interested in working with an experienced community college mentor who has successfully planned and implemented a major change in a high-tech program.

Colleges chosen for MentorLinks receive $20,000 for the two-year grant period and travel support for their project director to attend two project meetings (in person, if permitted by public health authorities). The grant period runs from October 1, 2021 to November 30, 2023.

AACC has developed and refined MentorLinks with the support of NSF’s Advanced Technological Education program since 1999.

Benefits of interacting with ATE community

Tollett found the formal sessions of the two-day MentorLinks meeting and the three-day ATE Conference, which MentorLinks mentees also can attend, to be valuable professional development experiences. But it was the informal conversations with principal investigators of ATE centers and projects that were most enlightening and encouraging, he added.  

“They were all happy to help in any way they could. If you had an idea and they thought it was a good idea, they would help you kind of flesh it out and make it make sense. And they would talk with you about ways to make it happen – you know, things to consider to get it funded.

“And if you had a bad idea, they would tell you why it was a bad idea without belittling the effort. So it was an incredibly positive atmosphere. I really learned a tremendous amount,” he said.

Related article: A career propelled by MentorLinks

Tollett said he is a more confident educator, especially when pitching ideas, thanks to MentorLinks. He is also more connected with employers. Several of the high-tech employers in the small, rural community in central Oklahoma provide paid internships for the engineering technology students’ capstone experiences.  

As a result of MentorLinks’ emphasis on industry partnerships, Tollett said, “I actually pay attention to what my students are going to need to use by now seeing where they might be employed and what they actually [are] going to do, instead of just preparing for some abstract concept out there.”

Planning how to recruit students to the engineering technology program and eventually to the welding program he hopes to start with an ATE grant, Tollett got to know the college’s recruiter.

“If I hadn’t worked with MentorLinks, I wouldn’t be building a relationship with our college recruiter. I wouldn’t have known that was something that’s important,” he said.

Persevering in pursuit of funding

MentorLinks also connected him with Mentor Up, another ATE program that offers guidance on how to write proposals to various NSF programs. Tollett is revising a welding program proposal he developed during MentorLinks and reworked during a Mentor Up workshop last summer. Although NSF has so far declined to fund the project, reviewers’ comments in 2020 were positive enough to encourage him to revise and resubmit the proposal in October.

Tollett said he’s been inspired to persevere in his goal of obtaining ATE funding by V. Celeste Carter, the lead ATE program officer at NSF. During her formal presentation to the 2017-2019 cohort of MentorLinks mentees, Carter talked candidly about her disappointment with reviewers’ comments on her first ATE grant proposal when she was teaching at Foothill College (California). After the initial sting subsided, she reconsidered the reviewers’ points and reworked her ideas. Her revised proposal was awarded an ATE grant.

Carter’s example has helped sustain Tollett as he begins rewriting his proposal after a challenging year of teaching simultaneous online and in-person classes because of Covid and dealing with weather-related damage to his classroom and office.

“If we can get that first one funded, it’s going to open the door for the next one. It will make our process of knowing what we’re doing and how we’re doing it that much better,” he said, confidently.

About the Author

Madeline Patton
is an education writer based in Ohio.