In-person visits to two California community college biotechnician programs significantly influenced the expansion of a Nebraska community college’s biotech program.
Those visits — and the on-site visit of a mentor to Southeast Community College’s campus — are unique aspects of the MentorLinks program, which is managed by the American Association of Community Colleges with support from the National Science Foundation’s Advanced Technological Education (ATE) program.
MentorLinks provides the guidance of a mentor with expertise in technician education, a $20,000 grant, technical resources and travel support to develop or revamp a STEM technician education program. The application will be available in April for the next two-year MentorLinks cohort.
When Misty Wehling and Carolee Ritter applied to MentorLinks in 2019, Southeast Community College (SCC) had just three students taking its small collection of biotech courses.
Biotech employers frequently called Wehling, then one of the college’s biology instructors, looking for students with lab skills. But the need for entry-level technicians at the international animal vaccine manufacturers and biotech start-ups near Lincoln, Nebraska, were not showing up in Department of Labor data. Ritter, the dean of arts and sciences, was interested but without documentation of employer demand, other college leaders were reluctant to expand the college’s biotech offerings.
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A few weeks after meeting their MentorLinks mentor, Bridgette Kirkpatrick, she came to Southeast, toured its Lincoln campus and talked with biotech employers and the college’s leaders. Kirkpatrick is a biotechnology professor at Collin College (Texas) and has been a principal investigator and co-principal investigator of ATE grants.
“What a difference it made to have Bridgette be able to come and visit Southeast Community College and talk to our president and vice president for instruction. I really feel like that was a turning point in the support from the college for creating these degree programs. It was invaluable… Hearing from Bridgette made such a difference,” Ritter said.
Kirkpatrick speculated that it was being an outsider, representing an NSF program and having years of experience running a biotech program at a community college that made the difference. While Kirkpatrick was still on campus, Wehling and Ritter received the administrators’ approval to develop the biotech program that awards certificates, diplomas and associate degrees. It launched in 2021 with 20 students; 30 enrolled in fall 2022.
Visits to other colleges
Covid delayed the SCC team’s site visits to biotech facilities at Solano Community College and Skyline College, and BABEC, all in California. However, the postponement was ultimately propitious.
When Wehling and Tracey Niday, both now co-directors of Southeast’s biotech program, toured Solana’s biomanufacturing instructional facility and Skyline’s labs in 2021, they had no idea that SCC would be breaking ground in 2022 on a new science building. What the co-directors learned in California has influenced the design of Southeast’s new biotech instructional spaces.
Wehling said those campus visits and MentorLinks interactions also informed her and her colleagues’ application for a $617,232 ATE grant, which the college received last summer. The grant will provide a dedicated college educator to assist high school science teachers and agriculture technology instructors as they incorporate biotechnology into their courses. The high-tech, hands-on experience will use mobile molecular biology lab equipment from Nebraska’s Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR), another NSF initiative.
Turning toward high school students
A key part of the dual-enrollment curriculum is a science project that has students collect saliva samples from dogs and analyze the DNA in the samples for genetic links to particular behaviors.
Niraj Patel, director of operations at Neogen Corporation’s Lincoln facility, said the project idea was developed during a brainstorming session with Southeastern faculty. Neogen is a global animal and food safety company that has a large lab in Lincoln for DNA testing for livestock and companion animals. It became an industry partner of the college during MentorLinks.
Patel explained that everyone in the brainstorming meeting wanted to show students how science happens day-to-day, and the dominance of the hyper-social-ability trait on chromosome 16 in dogs seemed like a good way to capture teens’ attention.
“We have to give students a chance to connect the dots,” Patel said.
Since the Covid pandemic, he has concluded that recruiting people as they complete four-year degrees is not an efficient strategy for hiring the several dozen new technicians that Neogen needs each year in Lincoln.
“We have to recruit earlier on… This partnership [with Southeast Community College] allows us to do both,” he said.
Kirkpatrick endorsed the plan for the ATE grant, but credited the Southeastern team and Neogen for the clever way it addresses the MentorLinks goal of recruiting more students.
“I think the hook they have is great. It is something that is easily understood by all, nothing controversial at all, and fun because participants can use their own pets. Additionally, the information/application and techniques are transferrable to many other aspects of biology and agriculture. It will help those in rural areas better understand the process of genetic testing on their farm/ranch animals/crops,” she said.