Mentor-Connect now open to all STEM faculty


A program that helps community college faculty improve their STEM project pitches to obtain National Science Foundation (NSF) grants focused on technician education is widening eligibility to more faculty.

All two-year college STEM faculty involved in technician education can now participate in Mentor-Connect, a program that pairs faculty with mentors to help them prepare their applications for NSF-funded Advanced Technological Education (ATE) grants. For the past decade, Mentor-Connect’s services were available only to faculty at two-year colleges that didn’t have ATE grants in the past seven years.

“Any faculty member who has not been through grant-preparation training really could benefit from Mentor-Connect because two-year college faculty members are generally not living in a culture where grant-writing is an expectation,” said Elaine Craft, principal investigator of Mentor-Connect.

Interested technical educators can register for a webinar on August 31 that will focus on ATE funding opportunities and provide an orientation to Mentor-Connect. The session will be posted later online. Applications for Mentor-Connect are due October 7.  

A pathway to success

Mentor-Connect, an ATE project based at Florence-Darlington Technical College, has assisted 210 two-year colleges, 383 faculty members and 221 administrators and grant professionals since 2012. The American Association of Community Colleges is a partner on the project.

Eleven of the 14 Mentor-Connect mentee teams that submitted proposals in 2021 have received grants in the ATE track for colleges new to ATE. This 80% funding rate is high compared to the NSF-wide funding rate of 25%.

Mentor-Connect selects 20 to 22 colleges to consult with a mentor during the nine months that they are developing ATE grant proposals that aim to improve some aspect of technician education. The program’s mentors are community college educators who have had successful ATE grants.

Recent enhancements to River Parishes Community College’s (RPCC) instrumentation program exemplify the transformations that Mentor-Connect facilitates. Esperanza Zenon, an associate professor of physical sciences at the Louisiana college, describes Mentor-Connect as “a great benefit” to her and her teammates while they wrote the proposal for their advanced industrial instrumentation control technician education project. It received a $293,706 ATE grant in 2020.

“This was our school’s first NSF grant, and we could not have done it without the guidance we received from Mentor-Connect and the support we got from our mentor,” Zenon said.

Karen Woscyna-Birch, principal investigator of the National Center for Next Generation Manufacturing at the Connecticut Community Colleges’ College of Technology, advised the River Parishes team – which included two faculty members, a grant professional and an administrator – from January to October 2019. She met with the team in person at Mentor-Connect’s winter and summer workshops and then conferred with them via email, phone and video conference in advance of the team submitting its grant proposal.

Yeilding results

With its ATE grant the RPCC team:

  • Used information from its business industry leadership (BILT) team with representatives from Shell, Emerson and BASF to revamp the instrumentation curriculum that prepares students to use hand-held, Internet-connected devices to manage process technology facilities and troubleshoot problems.
  • Secured equipment to go with the revamped curriculum, which the college began using this spring. BILT members contributed to the construction of a campus process equipment training plant that was completed in 2022.
  • Analyzed institutional data to determine where the college was not meeting the needs of underserved populations. This analysis – conducted with the National Alliance for Partnerships in Equity – found that the biggest gaps were with female students. So, during 2022-2023, project leaders will work with community partners, such as schools and employers, to learn what happens as people make career decisions.

Zenon, who is also an instructional designer, worked with technical instructors to develop modules in 15 topic areas. These open-source modules were designed to help people enrolled in three process technology courses brush up on math and science concepts without having to take numerous remedial courses. The portability and cross-discipline applicability of the modules means they are already used by chemistry, drafting and welding instructors.

“We meet students right where they have a need, so they don’t have to take a [remedial] course because they are a little behind on percents and decimals,” Zenon said.

Leveraging other resources

Zenon used what she learned as the college’s Mentor-Connect team leader and the ATE grant principal investigator to obtain additional external funding.

“When you’ve gone through the process of the application, it opens up opportunities to go after other grants because you understand the process better,” she said.

One initiative supports open-source courses and pedagogy and practices, which Zenon used to build the new modules, and the other underwrites the development of a dual-enrollment chemistry program that may serve as a model throughout Louisiana.

“Beyond the ATE grant, this stuff will live. I will have some meat there to address other programs on our campus,” she said. Zenon shares more of the lessons she learned through RPCC’s project in a recorded webinar on writing effective recruitment plans for an ATE proposal.

About the Author

Madeline Patton
Madeline Patton is an education writer based in Ohio.