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2016 November 3 - 05:14 pm

National Need, Local Solutions

Colleges Focusing On Producing More STEM Grads

When it comes to building local workforces with skills in the STEM fields, it pays to start early. So colleges such as San Jacinto College, located in suburban Houston, Texas, have forged partnerships with school districts to bring high school students to campus and send college students into local elementary schools.

“We are trying to showcase the possibilities for STEM careers,” said Alexander Okwonna, the college’s dean of health and natural sciences and cochair of the colleges STEM Council. “There are a wide range of careers and occupations that touch STEM that students might not know about.”

“We want to get their students to interact with ours,” he added. “The younger students can see themselves in our students and think about STEM careers.”

Only two colleges awarded more associate degrees in science technologies than did San Jacinto in 2014, according to Community College Week’s analysis of the Top 100 Associate Degree Producers (CCWeek, Aug. 31, 2016). The college awarded 140 such degrees, a 22 percent increase over the year before.

One of the colleges that bested San Jacinto was Truckee Meadows Community College, located in Reno, Nevada. The college ranked first in the nation for the number of science technology degrees awarded, with 296, a 52 percent increase from the year before.

Truckee Meadows boasts two facilities, made possible with gifts and grants, showcasing its commitment to awarding STEM degrees. The newly-constructed William N. Pennington Health Science Center is 16,800-square-foot facility that houses nursing, certified nursing assistant, radiologic technology, and veterinary technician programs.

The renovated, 100,000-square-foot William N. Pennington Applied Technology Center provides training for high skill jobs in construction, manufacturing and transportation technologies, including automotive, construction management, renewable energy, machining, fabrication, HVAC/R and welding. These programs are developed with input from local industry and directly meet the needs of the regional workforce.

“Technical education is not what it was in the 1950s,” said J. Kyle Dalpe, interim dean of technical sciences. “It’s high tech. It’s robotics. It’s automation.”

“The center looks like a high-tech center instead of like a shop. We put more than $9 million into renovating it. We call it a showcase. Ever since it opened, it’s been non-stop tours.”

That the country and its economy needs more graduates in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields is by now widely acknowledged. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the country will need about a million more STEM professionals than it will produce over the next decade in order to remain a world leader in science and technology. The country is facing fierce competition from abroad in producing and retaining STEM talent.

But while the shortage of STEM workers is a national problem, it demands local solutions. Into that void have stepped community colleges, the ultimate local economic development engines. For several years, colleges have ramped up their STEM education efforts, striving both to create short-term certificate programs and pathways increasing the number of community college students who ultimately earn bachelor’s degrees in STEM fields.

The work is daunting and difficult. According to a National Center for Education Statistics study, about 20 percent of community college students chose a STEM major at some point during their postsecondary academic career. But 69 percent of community college students who entered STEM fields between 2003 and 2009 had left these fields by spring 2009. About half of these leavers switched their major to a non-STEM field, and the rest left STEM fields by exiting college before graduating or earning a certificate.

The study found four major reasons fueling the shortage of STEM graduates:

• Math and science performance of U.S. elementary and secondary students lags behind their peers in many other nations.

• The rates at which U.S. undergraduates choose STEM majors trail those of several key competitors.

• The United States has one of the lowest ratios of STEM to non- STEM bachelor’s degrees in the world.

• Top U.S. students, who have great potential to become future science and technology innovators, are not choosing careers in STEM fields.

Dalpe cites some of his own reasons. Overall enrollment at Truckee Meadows is down, due to Nevada’s improving economy. Some 75 percent of Truckee Meadows students are enrolled part-time, making retention a challenge, Dalpe said.

Much of the work underway on community college campuses to fill the STEM pipeline is being funded by the National Science Foundation, which has awarded millions of dollars in grants improve STEM education.

For example, the Advanced Technological Education program promotes partnerships between academic institutions and industry to improve the education of science and engineering technicians at the undergraduate and secondary school levels. The Research Experiences for Teachers (RET) programs supports partnerships with universities so that teachers and community college faculty can translate research experiences into classroom activities.

San Jacinto College created a partnership with local schools to increase the number of students enrolled in STEM programs. The efforts are built on what Okwonna called the “four R’s”: recruit, retain, reward and research.

The objective of the partnership is to target future STEM-ready students and provide them the exposure to career opportunities in the STEM fields. Once the students are enrolled, a primary challenge is successfully getting them through math sequences. Only 42 percent of students who chose a STEM major at the college earn a credential in that field, Okwonna said.

“The coursework is difficult, particularly math,” he said. “Students fear math. They don’t feel as prepared. Part of the problem is that people postpone taking math. Sometimes it can be the last course that they take.”

So the college has revamped its math curriculum and created support systems for math-phobic students. The college’s Open Lab augments the existing student support center and encourages students to drop in on Fridays to get tutoring and burnish their skills.

The college created two new math courses to speed students through the math sequences: one combines developmental math with college algebra, while the second combines algebra with pre-calculus.

The courses can be completed in one semester.

The college has plenty of scholarships to award STEM students. And it encourages students to take part in research opportunities so they can put what they have learned into practice.

“We are partnering with Rice and Baylor to offer different kinds of research to our students,” Okwanna said. “Anytime you can apply learning, that’s a critical step. When you apply learning in a realworld setting, that enhances learning, and that’s our ultimate goal.”

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