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2012 October 29 - 12:00 am

POV: Community Colleges and STEM Education

Community Colleges
And STEM Education
By George R. Boggs,
CEO Emeritus, American Association of Community Colleges

The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), a group of the nation’s leading scientists and engineers, issued a report in February 2012 warning that if the United States is to maintain its historic preeminence in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), we must produce a million more STEM graduates than are projected at current rates. While the report focuses on retaining STEM majors, there is a growing recognition of the importance of community colleges in the STEM education pathway.

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As evidence of that recognition, the National Academies of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and National Research Council convened a summit on Dec. 15, 2011, in Washington, DC, titled “Community Colleges in the Evolving STEM Education Landscape.” Of course, the importance of community colleges, especially in emerging areas of STEM and preparation of the STEM workforce has been recognized for at least 20 years through the National Science Foundation’s Advanced Technological Education (ATE) Program. But as Dan Hull points out in “Career Pathways For STEM Technicians,” too few students are entering STEM technician programs .

STEM professional and technician careers are rewarding for the individual, and encouraging students to pursue and succeed in them is important for the future of our country. However, the careers are not well understood by students, parents, and high school teachers and counselors — and students are too often not prepared to succeed in STEM courses. According to PCAST, students leave STEM majors because of uninspiring introductory courses, difficulty with required math and an academic culture that is sometimes not welcoming to women and minorities. Community colleges can overcome the barriers to student access to and success in these programs through concerted action.

Too many obstacles to a STEM career path remain. Many students graduate from high school unprepared for college and must take remedial or developmental classes. Even if the students were generally prepared for college, they may not have taken the math and science classes in high school that would enable them to be successful in college STEM classes.

Students also have little knowledge of or perhaps inaccurate perceptions of STEM careers. Popular movies and television shows often portray scientists and technicians as socially isolated individuals who work alone in laboratories with equipment instead of with other people or directly helping other people, fostering a belief that especially discourages women from wanting to enter these fields. Students need better and more accurate information about STEM careers and they need to see role models, people who look like them who have chosen STEM career paths.

Community college faculty and administrators should get school students as early as elementary school and continuing through middle school and high school onto campus to tour science and technology laboratories and to talk with STEM faculty and STEM students. Involving school students in college projects or discipline research can be a motivator. Arranging for tours of STEM-related businesses can give students a more accurate perception of what it means to pursue a STEM career.

Community colleges can also sponsor Science or STEM fairs and summer camps to encourage school students to work on projects that engage their interests. High school students can enroll in community college classes through dual or concurrent enrollment programs. Some community colleges have early college high schools located on their campuses, providing even greater opportunity to engage the students in STEM projects.

Articulation with local high schools is important. Community colleges have started administering college placement examinations to students while they are in high school and still have time to take courses needed to prepare them adequately for college. Colleges should also be sure that high school counselors and teachers are invited to campus to tour facilities and to interact with their counterparts at the college.

Community colleges are becoming more engaged in teacher preparation and professional development. The colleges that have instituted professional development programs for teachers have opportunities to engage them in STEM projects and research that build knowledge and understanding that can translate into greater enthusiasm for their elementary, middle school, and high school students.

Parent orientations are also becoming more common on community college campuses, and they provide an opportunity to educate parents about the career pathways, including those in STEM, that their children can pursue.

Bridge programs can make a big difference in the success of students, especially those for low-income families and minorities. These programs assist students in their transition from high school into college. Information about STEM programs and STEM careers can easily be integrated into these bridge programs.

Administrators and trustees can demonstrate the importance of STEM by asking for regular reports. Examples of data that can be collected and reported include: what percentage of incoming students are unprepared for college or unprepared for college STEM programs?; what percentage of students in developmental classes are successful?; what percentage of students in STEM and STEM technician programs complete their programs?; are good jobs available locally for STEM technician graduates; are the college programs preparing enough graduates to meet the needs of local businesses?

Information that is gathered should be disaggregated by gender, ethnicity, and economic status of the students and by which high school they graduated from. Trend data can inform the college community, employers, and local high school leaders about the extent to which strategies for improvement and to close achievement gaps are effective.

College presidents can work to improve relationships with local schools by scheduling regular meetings with school superintendents and principals to discuss issues and strategies for improvement. Trustees can meet periodically with their counterparts on local school boards to discuss policies that remove barriers for students.

While the trustees and the presidents should be focused on measuring progress toward outcome goals, it is up to the administrators in instruction and student services to work with faculty and staff to develop strategies designed to improve the outcomes. Promising strategies to close achievement gaps and increase completion rates include the use of learning communities, study groups, peer tutors, study skills classes, freshman experience classes, bridge programs, parent orientation programs, and counseling as well as the elimination of late registration for classes. PCAST recommends teaching approaches that engage students as active participants and replacing standard laboratory courses with discovery-base research courses.

Counselors and STEM faculty members are the key to closing the achievement gap, improving college completion rates, and ensuring that students have the information and support they need to find the programs that they are suited for and helping them to be successful. Regular meetings with industry advisory committees and other employer representatives can help to ensure that the curriculum is up-to-date. Inviting school teachers and counselors to the college for tours and informational meetings will let them know more about college programs and the quality of instruction.

Community colleges are receiving well-deserved recognition for their important roles in maintaining a strong and vibrant society. Today, they are being called upon to address the projected shortage of STEM professionals and technicians. These careers are important to our future well-being — and they are very rewarding careers. However, today’s educational structures are not serving us — or our students — well. It is time for us to implement strategies that will allow our students and our colleges to succeed.

George R. Boggs is president and  CEO emeritus of the American Association of Community Colleges and superintendent/president emeritus of Palomar College. He is a member of the Community College Advisory Board of National American University.

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