Leveraging MentorLinks to develop new STEM programs

Teams from eight community colleges participating in the MentorLinks program met in October in Washington, D.C., to meet with their mentors and to share ideas and updates on their projects. (Photo: AACC)

Brainstorming sidebars, roundtable discussions and networking over meals animated a recent MentorLinks project meeting where eight community college teams reported on their efforts to develop new STEM technician education programs.

“With MentorLinks, mentees gain a new professional network,” said Ellen Hause, associate vice president of academic and student affairs at the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC). During the meeting, Hause encouraged participants to ask questions.

“Tap into the knowledge of all the mentors, confer with the other mentees about problems they’ve solved, and learn as much as possible from the whole ATE (Advanced Technological Education) community,” she said.

MentorLinks is a STEM program development initiative that AACC offers with support from the National Science Foundation (NSF). Mentee colleges receive guidance from a mentor with expertise in technician education, a $20,000 grant, technical resources and travel support. The application for the next two-year MentorLinks cohort will be available in April 2023.

At the October meeting, teams had hours of face-to-face time with their assigned mentors and engaged in discussions with the other mentors and mentees to learn what Hause called “great strategies and great ideas.” Mentees also learn about other innovative programs supported by NSF’s Advanced Technological Education program when they attend the ATE Principal Investigators’ Conference last month.

Embedding entrepreneurial skills into drone program 

Nebraska Indian Community College, the first tribal college to participate in MentorLinks, is working with Vincent A. DiNoto, Jr., to develop a drone technology program with an entrepreneurship component. DiNoto is director of the GeoTech Center at Jefferson Community and Technical College (Kentucky).

“Our goal is to make our students as marketable as possible when they enter career fields,” said Morgan Dorsey.

As the professor who is developing the drone curriculum for agriculture and mapping applications, Dorsey frequently travels to the four widely dispersed campuses. He hopes that teaching students to operate and maintain unmanned aircraft will help them start businesses that farmers and others will hire for data the equipment collects.

“Generating as many jobs as possible is the best way to make people on the Indian reservations marketable. We are very impoverished,” Dorsey said.

Leveraging ideas for a mechatronics program

Hossein Besharatian, professor and engineering coordinator at Prince George’s Community College (Maryland), is developing a mechatronics program that addresses the workforce needs of businesses near Washington, D.C.

Last year, he was trying to figure out how to start the program on his own when a colleague suggested he apply to MentorLinks for help.

“I’m telling you, it was something like coming from the sky to me,” Besharatian said.

He now has 90% of the foundation completed to offer a mechatronics certificate and associate degree that aligns with the mechatronics bachelor’s and master’s degrees offered by nearby universities.  

Through connections facilitated by mentor Jim Hyder, a semiconductor training and education program manager for the Ohio Association of Community Colleges, Besharatian has consulted with Douglas J. Laven, a South Central College (Minnesota) professor. Laven used ATE grants to devise mechatronics trainers and an “Instructor in the Loop” format for delivering mechatronics instruction to dual-enrolled students at rural high schools. Besharatian plans to use the project as the model for teaching mechatronics at rural high schools in Maryland.

3 STEM initiatives at Itawamba

Itawamba Community College (ICC) initiated three, cross-discipline initiatives to put more students on a greater variety of STEM paths that keep more of northeast Mississippi’s best and brightest working in the state.

With advice from their mentor Louis McIntyre, three faculty members from computer science, math and biology developed:

  • a STEM club
  • an Introductions to STEM Professions credit course
  • STEM Week with campus-wide activities the first week of February

Bradley Howard, chair of ICC’s computer science division, reported that all three initiatives aim to make students, their relatives and school personnel aware of the array of STEM careers that students can prepare for through academic and career technical education programs at the college. Heather McCormick, chair of the mathematics division, and Jada Mills, chair of the natural science division, are on the MentorLinks team along with Howard. Michelle Sumerel, the vice president of instruction who oversees their work, is also on the team.

Each ICC initiative features STEM industry guest speakers, networking opportunities and hands-on STEM experiences. Members of the STEM club, for instance, worked with faculty and honors students to design an American With Disabilities Act-compliant miniature golf course for a skilled nursing center.

Press coverage about the MentorLinks initiatives and ICC creating a new School of STEM led to other collaborations. One with Brown University resulted in two students landing research internships to gather and analyze air samples in Tupelo, Mississippi. The lead scientist came to Mississippi to hear the students’ presentations and talk about her studies of air, noise, visual and water pollution.

“The three instructors on this grant have absolutely been the example for our institution to show how – when you work together – things can happen quickly, and with success, and to reach all the students that we’re serving, not just an elite small portion,” Sumerel said.

Expanding research opportunities

The MentorLinks team at the Community College of Baltimore County (CCBC) is developing a systematic approach to undergraduate research experiences for biology and chemistry majors from all three Maryland campuses.

Jennifer Laing, associate professor of bio and chemical technology, explained that she and Christine DeStefano, assistant dean for science, are trying to serve two groups of students: those interested in becoming lab technicians who enter the workforce after earning associate degrees and students who want to become research scientists after earning advanced degrees.

With 30-minute drives separating each CCBC campus, a key challenge for the faculty has been working with a critical mass of students at each campus while attending to their other responsibilities. She asked, “How do we make sure that we have enough students to keep the program alive, but how do we incorporate all three campuses?”

The team had success in 2022 placing students in internships at Maryland universities and the National Institutes of Health. Based on the students’ reports, Laing said.

Water tech program in the works  

The MentorLinks team at Waubonsee Community College (Illinois) is searching for an industry sector interested in hiring students educated in the college’s state-of-the-art lab.

Sheela Vemu, associate professor of biology, and Nancy Christensen, a professor of chemistry, used release time covered by their MentorLinks grant to explore the potential for biotechnology or biomanufacturing programs. Unfortunately, the employers most interested in hiring biotechnicians are north of Chicago, more than a 90-minute drive from the rural Sugar Grove campus.

Undeterred that their first target employers were not a good match, the two faculty members kept searching and found a huge unmet need for water quality and wastewater treatment technicians. They are now gathering information to develop a water-focused curriculum, to recruit high school students and collaborate with the Illinois Science Coalition on workshops for high school teachers.

Adding cell and gene therapy tech program

Biotech employers have grown exponentially in the Research Triangle Park region of North Carolina, and Wake Technical Community College is using MentorLinks to add a cell and gene therapy program to its other biotech offerings.

“Economic development is driving the bus, and everybody else is hanging on to the roof of the bus,” said Leslie Isenhour, biotech department head and director of the BioNetwork Capstone Center.

The biotech program is housed on the third floor of a new 80,000-square-foot science and technology center. The second floor is devoted to a high school that focuses on biotechnology. On the first floor, students will soon be able to take bachelor’s degree courses from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University.

The pace of growth is so fast that Isenhour and Jill Mikulecky, the biotechnology program director, reported they have been teaching one new course while developing content for the next course in the sequence.

With guidance from mentor Bridgette Kirkpatrick, a professor and coordinator of biotechnology at Collin College (Texas), and MentorLinks technical and financial support, the Wake Tech team is developing curriculum based on skills assessments, industry input and professional development.

Focused on computer science BAS  

While developing a bachelor’s of applied science (BAS) degree in computer science with MentorLinks assistance, the team at South Puget Sound Community College (Washington) is revising its related associate degrees to create more paths for more students to go further faster.

Both efforts are driven by strong industry demand and graduates’ work experiences, according to Jason Selwitz, dean of applied technology.

“We’re looking forward to having a four-year degree available. Our two-year degrees have been working well for students getting them employed, but what we hear is that after they get promoted and start moving up in ranks, at some point they kind of hit a ceiling and they need a higher-level degree,” said Michael Haensel, professor of computer information systems.

High-tech employers are pushing for more BAS degree options at community and technical colleges throughout Washington, which had 24,000 computer science job openings in October. One of the challenges is to determine exactly what employers need and fulfill those needs with qualified graduates on both levels, said Ashraf Alattar, computer information systems professor.

“That is awesome because it allows people from other disciplines to come into your program,” added Pruitt-Mentle, who is the lead for academic engagement at the National Initiative for Cybersecurity Education at the National Institute for Standards and Technology.

Gearing up for biomed engineering tech program

Tarrant County College (Texas) is creating a biomedical engineering technology program. Mohamad Tlass, assistant dean of health services and therapeutic departments, said the program is based on what the team learned during MentorLinks site visits to St. Louis Community College and another college and his pre-MentorLinks visit to Collin College (Texas).

Recommendations to require internships, which the team received from educators at San Antonio College (Texas) and St. Petersburg College (Florida), are influencing that aspect of the program.

Project director Divya Elumalai said there is strong demand for biomedical technicians from the 43 hospitals in Fort Worth and the medical device manufacturers relocating to north Texas. Industry partners say that biomedical engineering certificate and associate degree recipients with no experience could earn starting salaries of $65,000, and after two years on the job earn $75,000 to $80,000.

About the Author

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