STEM and the Community College

Where are tomorrow’s hot jobs? 
“STEM: Good Jobs Now and for the Future,” a report by the United States Department of Commerce’s Economics and Statistics Administration, paints a rosy picture for people working in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. The report shows that growth in STEM jobs has been three times greater than that of non-STEM jobs through the last 10 years. And throughout the next decade, STEM occupations are projected to grow by 17 percent, compared to 9.8 percent growth for other occupations.

The report predicts bright futures for those trained in the STEM fields. For example, when compared to their non-STEM counterparts, STEM workers earn 26 percent more on average and are less likely to experience joblessness. STEM degree holders enjoy higher earnings, regardless of their occupation. And no matter what their major, college graduates who work in a STEM job enjoy an earnings premium.

Unfortunately, many U.S. businesses have frequently voiced concerns over the supply and availability of STEM workers, according to the report. Companies operating on the forefront of technological innovation need more of them. Yet in higher education, only about a third of bachelor’s degrees earned in the U.S. are in a STEM field, compared with approximately 53 percent of first university degrees earned in China, and 63 percent of those earned in Japan.

“When China has more gifted kids than we have kids there’s going to be a problem,” says Ray Mellado, CEO, chairman of the board, Great Minds in STEM. All is not lost, however. The Obama Administration made a $206M commitment toward STEM training and related programs in the 2012 budget.

The Role of Community Colleges
Much of that investment is going to community colleges. The National Science Foundation’s 2012 Science and Engineering Indicators reports that community colleges provide an important and affordable gateway for students entering higher education— with 46 percent of recent science and engineering (S&E) baccalaureate graduates indicating that they earned college credit from a community or two-year college at some point in their academic careers. In addition, the report cites the significance of community colleges in educating individuals with advanced S&E credentials — with one out of five recent S&E doctorate holders indicating that they earned college credit from a community or two-year college. 

“Community colleges are working closely with four-year institutions when designing curriculum,” reports Ellen Hause, director for innovative learning and student success, American Association of Community Colleges. “For instance, Penn State has a nanotechnology center that partners with community colleges and offers a Capstone semester where students can work on their equipment before transferring over.” She also points to colleges working closely with industry to create certified technicians. “Some schools have their own wind farms so students will have actual turbines to work on,” she says.

When it comes to STEM, community colleges have two distinct roles: certifying technicians for the workforce or providing the first two years of a bachelor’s degree. “Community colleges have always provided a vital service in certifying technicians,” says Mellado. “For instance, Microsoft has seven levels of certification. Many community colleges will offer a program like that in lieu of an associate’s degree.”

Community Colleges as the Starting Point
Certification, however, is old news. What’s new at some community colleges are the facilities and programs available to earn two-year degrees and the level of preparedness they impart on their students. For instance, Montgomery College, Rockville Campus in Rockville, MD, offers an articulation agreement to their some 1,300 declared science majors in 10 different areas of engineering.

“Students complete 60 credits here and then all 60 transfer to our partner schools,” reports Muhammad Kehnemouyi, Ph.D. PE, professor and chair, Department of Physics, Engineering, and Geosciences, Rockville Campus, Montgomery College. The list of partner schools proves impressive: University of Maryland, Georgia Tech, MIT, and The George Washington University.

Gone is the stigma of spending the first two years in a community college. In fact, it might turn to an advantage as class sizes are smaller, teachers are often professors as opposed to teaching assistants, and the cost is a fraction of other schools. “Carnegie Mellon is $40,000 a year while we are $4,000,” says Kehnemouyi. Not only do students pay less, they accomplish more. “Ninety-six percent of our students graduate with a degree.”

Designing and Building for STEM
Community colleges are building new, multifaceted facilities to fill this niche. “The level of buildings is trending toward the complex and even the exotic,” says Michael Reagan, vice president, Stantec. “We just completed a science building on the Virginia Beach campus of the Tidewater Community College system that has a planetarium.”

“These spaces are not very flexible and they are expensive to build and operate,” adds Mike Carter, principal, Stantec. “Yet schools are making the investment.” They are also realizing the importance of “soft” spaces with breakout areas, lounges, and cafeterias appearing more and more often. The result? “The Health Science Building on the Westshore campus for the Cuyahoga Community College system was designed to accommodate student growth for three to four years before it topped out on capacity,” continues Carter. “It was over capacity on opening day.”

If you build it, they will come, even at the most unlikely hours.

“Montgomery College is offering a lab at 1 a.m.,” reports John Knickmeyer, principal, Stantec. “Community colleges are great at putting bodies in seats and using their buildings at all times.”

Getting Students to Success
Yet these successes are not found across the board. “I find articulation of credits is still rather disorganized,” laments Mellado. “It’s getting better, but the transfer rate remains low in my experiences.” Mellado points to lack of student readiness at the high school level as a reason. “Students often don’t know their deficiencies until they reach college.”

Elaine Craft, director, SC ATE Center of Excellence, Florence-Darlington Technical College in Florence, SC, sees the same problem and is attacking it in multiple ways. “We have a Department of Education Title III Grant to change the way we are getting students ready for STEM programs,” she says. The first is getting their reading up to speed. “Scientific texts are dense. You can’t skim them, and if you skip a word it might change a concept,” continues Craft. “It’s very different than reading literature.”

Along with reading and communication, students in the Florence-Darlington Technology Gateway program solve industry-based, real-world problems that require them to use math, physics, and technology. “These classes used to be taught in unimaginative, out-of-context ways that were frankly demeaning,” says Craft. “Our new method engages students, addresses multiple intelligences and learning styles, and creates self-directed, lifelong learners.”

Craft also brings back successful graduates to mentor students. “When peers come back with a good paying job and talk about how they use math and physics every day, it’s a powerful message,” concludes Craft. “There’s nothing like hearing it from the horse’s mouth.” 

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