As careers in science, technology, engineering, and math become more prevalent, community colleges are shifting their focus to meet demand and secure their place in a rapidly changing educational landscape.
In 2012, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology issued a dire warning that if the United States did not boost programming to produce one million more graduates in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), the nation would lose its status as the leader in those fields. Since then, several national science organizations, including the National Research Council, the National Academies of Sciences, and the National Academy of Engineering have called on community colleges to lead the charge in STEM education in order to keep up with demand.
High on the list of priorities is preparing students early for STEM studies. Experts agree that children should be exposed to STEM career pathways in elementary school, and should have continued exposure through their middle school and high school years. Classroom experiences are important, but George Boggs, the CEO Emeritus of the American Association of Community Colleges, posits
that visits to college campuses, involvement in research opportunities, advanced STEM studies in high school, science fairs, and summer camps are also necessary in order to get schoolchildren excited about careers in STEM.
This video illustrates that engineers, scientists, cybersecurity experts, and other STEM professionals are in demand.
According to Boggs, another critical component in devising successful STEM programs is developing curriculum articulation between high schools and community colleges to reduce the number of students who have to take remedial courses once they get to college. In math especially, community college students demonstrate a lack of preparedness that serves as a barrier to many of them pursuing careers in a STEM-related field. Additionally, Boggs points out that the perception that STEM careers are not friendly to women and minorities must be changed if the nation is to keep pace with demand for highly-skilled, highly trained workers. Fortunately, there are dozens programs available to help community colleges expand their STEM offerings, and many have taken advantage of the opportunity.
States Offer Free Tuition for STEM Majors
As part of the push to encourage more college students to study in a STEM field, some states are offering free tuition. In New York, the STEM Incentive Program
provides students that graduate in the top ten percent of their high school class with a scholarship to cover their tuition expenses. The scholarship is good for up to five years after graduation and can be used at any institution within the State University of New York or City University of New York systems.
In Tennessee, the free tuition plan has been taken a step further. Beginning in 2015, any high school graduate in the state can attend a community college or trade school tuition-free. The program, which is funded mostly by the Tennessee Lottery, aims to increase the state’s number of college graduates from 32 to 55 percent in its first decade. And since community colleges and technical schools in the state offer many STEM programs, providing tuition-free access to these schools will also bring more people into the STEM workforce.
STEM Grant Opportunities Encourage Program Development
Community colleges currently have dozens of grant programs available to them in order to build STEM programming from the ground up and encourage more students to pursue STEM careers. They include
- Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation – This program focuses on increasing the number of minority and underrepresented students in STEM disciplines.
- Research Experiences for Undergraduates – Grant funding to pay for student expenses related to conducting scientific research.
- Advanced Technological Education – Grant support for technical education programs and faculty development.
- NSF Scholarships in STEM – Provides funding to community colleges to support scholarship programs for academically gifted STEM students.
Many more programs are available to community colleges in order to prepare the workforce for a future economy that is much more globalized and far more competitive. From added academic majors in STEM fields to multi-million dollar science and technology centers, community colleges are increasingly becoming hotbeds of STEM studies.
This video also illustrates the demand for STEM subjects.
Early College Academy in Connecticut
Norwalk Community College
(NCC) has launched two major STEM initiatives in recent years in order to boost the number of students prepared to meet the upcoming demand for STEM-related skills in Connecticut’s workforce. Estimates
are that over 100,000 jobs in STEM fields will need to be filled in just the next four years in Connecticut alone, while by 2020, 90 percent of jobs in the state will require STEM skills.
In 2011, the college received a massive $12.1 million federal grant to fund the Connecticut Health and Life Science Initiative. NCC is also one of only three community colleges in the United States to participate in the STEM Regional Collaborative Initiative, which aims to create college-to-career pathways for STEM graduates by increasing coordination between community colleges and local businesses that have a need for STEM-educated workers.
Most recently, however, NCC, along with IBM and the Norwalk Public Schools, launched the Norwalk Early College Academy. This six-year program starts the freshman year of high school and continues on until participants graduate with an associate’s degree of applied science from NCC. Students in the program will be matched with mentors from IBM who will provide internship opportunities and work-study programs. Additionally, because the program has plenty of external funding, participants will be able to get their associate’s degree at no cost. The first round of students will begin the program this fall.
New York City’s BTECH
The cooperative program between Norwalk Community College and Norwalk Public Schools is not the only one ready to prepare students for STEM careers. In the nation’s largest public school system, New York City, various agencies, including Queensborough Community College
and the City University of New York, are launching a six-year program called BTECH – Business Technology Early College High School
. BTECH is designed specifically to give students an edge in STEM-related career fields. Like it’s sister program in Connecticut, New York City’s plan allows students to earn both a high school diploma and an associate’s degree. Both programs have a curriculum that is specifically designed to meet entry-level job requirements in STEM industries, and both heavily rely on real-world experiences so students can apply what they learn in an actual workplace setting. One difference between the programs is that students in the New York City program begin college-level studies their freshman year of high school, whereas Norwalk students have college-level experiences backloaded to the final years of high school.
Delaware County Builds Massive STEM Complex
Delaware County Community College
(DCCC) in Media, Pennsylvania is at the forefront of STEM education. The college recently completed a $60 million STEM Complex that houses programs in the fields of geothermal heating, robotics, environmental engineering, and other high-demand, 21st
-century career areas.
DCCC’s STEM complex is representative of the rapidly changing scope of a community college education. Not that long ago, many technical jobs didn’t require education or training beyond high school. However, this is certainly no longer the case. The jobs in STEM-related fields now require an associate’s degree or certification at the very least, and colleges like DCCC are cashing in by designing the programs and building the facilities to offer that training. Not only is DCCC able to prepare workers for 21st-century careers, but they are also able to maintain their relevance as workforce demands require them to change their focus to STEM preparedness.
Improving Upward and Downward Articulation
What the aforementioned programs typify is the need for community colleges to work closely with high schools and business and industry to align expectations of knowledge and skills. As the middleman, community colleges must work with high schools to ensure students coming to them have the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in college. Similarly, community colleges must communicate with business and industry to ensure their students have the knowledge and skills they need when they leave college for the world of work. This will require, as is evident by the breadth and depth of the six-year programs in Norwalk and New York City, a lot of effort by all parties involved. However, that effort will pay off in the long run, because the improved articulation of curricula and outcomes from high school to college to the business sector will result in a workforce that has the education, the training, and the know-how to be successful in a highly technological economy.
This video illustrates the success of a STEM program.
The role of community colleges in preparing the workforce of the future has a particular significance for minorities, first-generation college students, and the poor. Community college often represents the best or only access point these populations have to higher education. And with more and more community colleges offering STEM degree programs and certifications, these underrepresented populations have a clearer pathway to a well-paying job with a fantastic opportunity for growth over the next two decades. In that regard, these programs aren’t just a means by which the nation’s workforce can adapt to modern-day demands, they are a vehicle by which underrepresented groups can enjoy some measure of social and economic mobility.
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