Building a network of support, connections

Chad Tischer, engineering technology coordinator at Iowa Lakes Community College (Iowa), checks the cell holders of the testing rack inside an incubator for a research collaboration. (Photo: ILCC)

For Chad R. Tischer, the key benefit of MentorLinks is connecting with community college educators who are involved in Advanced Technological Education (ATE) centers and projects. Through interactions with them, he continues to learn ways to improve the engineering technology program at Iowa Lakes Community College.

“The networking piece is huge,” Tischer said. 

MentorLinks, an ATE project led by the American Association of Community Colleges, helps community colleges develop or strengthen technician education programs in science, technology, engineering and manufacturing (STEM). With support from the National Science Foundation’s ATE program, MentorLinks provides mentoring, professional development opportunities and technical assistance to help two-year college educators achieve their goals. The MentorLinks application for the next two-year cohort will be available in April.

Improving the marketing of the engineering technology program, which he coordinates, and other sustainable energy and resource technology programs at Iowa Lakes was the focus of Tischer and Executive Dean Scott Stokes’ work in fall 2019 with their MentorLinks Mentor Louise Petruzzella. At that time, Petruzzella was director of biotechnology and clean energy at Shoreline Community College in Washington. She is now the senior education and workforce development program officer for Bioindustrial Manufacturing and Design Ecosystem (BioMADE).

Editor’s note: This article continues a series exploring how various community colleges have leveraged the National Science Foundation-funded MentorLinks program, which the American Association of Community Colleges manages, to strengthen their programming in STEM-related fields. The application for the next MentorLinks cohort opens in April.

The college’s grant writer applied for MentorLinks without Tischer’s involvement, however, he said the timing was perfect because he had taught high school and had at that time completed three years of teaching engineering technology at the college. In fall 2019, he was ready to learn where he could take his program.

Tischer said this of the MentorLinks meeting and the annual ATE Principal Investigators Conference: “It was overwhelming … [but] it was a good type, interesting and exciting … for me it was like, ‘This is great! This is what we need.’ It was a good time.”

Tischer said he and Stokes “were both just blown away by how organized and how well everything was put together” at the 2019 MentorLinks meeting.

Site visits and new connections

MentorLinks leaders have founds that site visits – when mentors visit mentees’ colleges and when mentees visit mentors’ colleges – inform the mentees’ project planning.

Fortunately for the Iowa Lakes team, Petruzzella traveled to their campus and met in person with Iowa Lakes personnel and industry partners prior to the Covid pandemic in early 2020.

Also in early 2020, Tischer and Mike Gengler, wind technology coordinator and assistant professor, did the MentorLinks reverse site visit at Madison Area Technical College (Wisconsin) to gather information at the Center for Renewable Energy Advanced Technological Education (CREATE). Ken Walz, the principal investigator of CREATE, was Petruzzella’s MentorLinks mentor in 2014.

Both Petruzzella and Walz have connected Tischer and Stokes to numerous other educators working in energy and related fields as well as offering advice.

A path to professional development   

One introduction at the ATE PI Conference, which Tischer and Stokes attended following the two-day MentorLinks meeting, led to Tischer participating in a multi-day workshop on supervisory control and data (SCADA) in January 2020.

After the workshop, Tischer applied what he learned about how SCADA is used in wind turbines and other energy control systems to revise several courses. “Which was really a great benefit because the [workshop] curriculum was great and was thorough,” he said.

Covid interfered with Tischer promoting the engineering technology program in high schools as he had initially planned. However, in summer 2022 he and his colleagues finalized content for hand-outs they began distributing in fall 2022.

Despite Covid challenges, Tischer explained that there is an ongoing “snowball effect” from all the people he has met through MentorLinks. “I would never have met a lot of these people and talked to them daily or every so often had it not been for MentorLinks,” Tischer said, adding, “It’s all been great.”

“The nice thing about the MentorLinks and the community is the people that are in there want to do something different. And that’s kind of how I am. We’re always looking to do something better and different. And so it’s really nice, like those roundtables [at the ATE PI Conference] for example, or even just those sessions when you are in a room with people that actually want to do something different and they’re willing to admit that maybe their program could use some help,” he said.

More connections

Tischer was so impressed by the collaborations he witnessed at the ATE Conference and the activities documented in ATE Impacts: 2018-2019, he showed the book to Gül E. Kremer when she was at the Estherville campus for a battery-testing collaboration. At the time, Kremer was a professor of interdisciplinary engineering in the Department of Industrial and Manufacturing Systems Engineering at Iowa State University (ISU).

“While I was talking to her, I showed her an LED Cube that I had purchased using Mentorlinks money. She was impressed with the LED Cube and it got us started [talking] about NSF grants. I happened to have an ATE booklet with the funded projects in it and we both talked about how NSF grants can really do great things for schools,” Tischer said.

Although Kremer has now taken a position at an Ohio university, Iowa Lakes students continue to conduct tests for the battery research project. In addition to contributing data for the research, Iowa Lakes faculty and students have received training from ISU personnel on data analysis using Python programming language.

About the Author

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