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SFAz Scales Successful STEM Pathways Model at Rural Arizona Colleges

Posted by Madeline Patton on ATE@20 – Visit Link

Success leads to more success.

And that is what eight rural community colleges hope to achieve by utilizing the STEM Pathways Model developed with ATE support by Science Foundation Arizona (SFAz) and tested at Cochise College.

From 2012 through 2014, Cochise College’s promising results from the STEM Pathways Model included

  • new, industry-funded internships for Cochise students;
  • ATE-funded internships that led students to full-time employment;
  • increased industry participation in the college’s STEM outreach programs; and
  • more secondary school students participating in Cochise’s Early College Academy and continuing in postsecondary STEM education programs.

With a new ATE project grant, SFAz and Cochise are leading the Rural Community College STEM Network that is helping rural two-year colleges throughout Arizona implement the STEM Pathways Model.

The model is essentially a strategic planning document with a twist. It not only outlines goals, its detailed matrix helps college’s identify the resources they currently have and what they will need to carry out the steps to achieve their STEM program goals. STEM employers serve critical roles in the model, which also includes instructions for colleges to engage effectively with industry.

“These have become little one-page recipes for a college to look at and decide if it is something they want to copy and implement, or tweak what they already have,” said Caroline VanIngen-Dunn, senior manager for STEM Pathways at SFAz.

She is principal investigator of the current SFAz+8: Building Capacity for STEM Pathways in Rural Arizona project and Hispanic-Serving Community College KickStarter project, and the recently completed Engineering Pathways Partnership Project (EP3): A Rural Model for a Modern World. This first NSF project provided the groundwork for the innovations the current grant is scaling at rural colleges across Arizona.

SFAz Facilitates STEM Innovations

SFAz is a non-profit organization that facilitates STEM education improvement efforts throughout Arizona. About six years ago it invested nearly $1 million at Cochise College in Sierra Vista, Arizona, to start an early college academy, a mechatronics program, and STEM outreach effort in the rural secondary and elementary schools near the U.S.-Mexico border.

VanIngen-Dunn praises Cochise’s leadership, including Verlyn Fick who is Vice President for Instruction/Provost and co-principal investigator of the ATE grants, and Celia Jenkins, STEM Pathways Coordinator. Cochise’s Early College Academy has taken hold with 77% of the 151 students who have participated in it enrolling in postsecondary STEM education. The college’s Math & Science Experience has become a highlight of schools’ spring calendars and brings hundreds of students and teachers to the Cochise campus on the last Friday of April. Its exploratory program for ninth graders and summer camp for tenth and eleventh graders are also full.

The mechatronics program was initially less successful. But VanIngen-Dunn said the college’s first ATE grant helped remedy that situation by creating a mechanism for engaging with area high-tech employers.

At the time the mechatronics program was created there were no companies in the area doing automated manufacturing. So while the curriculum and equipment were top-notch, graduates couldn’t find work locally. Most of the area’s high-tech companies are military contractors for the U.S. Army’s Fort Huachuca.

Cochise College Accomplishes STEM Goals by Engaging Industry

With the ATE-funded Engineering Pathways Partnership Project the college and SFAz sought to create alternative career paths that would use the college’s updated curriculum and equipment. The critical difference with this initiative from their previous mechatronics endeavor was engaging industry from the outset.

VanIngen-Dunn said this has made a tremendous difference.

For example, by the third year of the grant, 12 companies that had previously hired only university students as interns were funding internships for Cochise students. The ATE grant had initially provided companies with the funds to pay interns. During the first year of the grant only one company participated. But its experience was so positive that by 2014 nine companies were offering the subsidized internships and 12 additional companies were funding Cochise interns.  This program gave local companies a first-hand look at the quality of Cochise’s programs, leading them to become further engaged with the institution.

As the college and employers worked together on updating various curricula, the STEM Pathways Model took shape. Interestingly, industry-led revisions to the cybersecurity curricula led to a new engineering technology degree program, also developed with industry input, that incorporated aspects of the mechatronics program to address the technical workforce needs of cybersecurity companies.

“To me that’s just a really, really good example of what happens when you get industry engaged, incentivizing them with free interns, getting them comfortable with the product that the college offers, and then contributing back to the college by helping them design programs.  Cochise’s industry partners took advantage of a program that wasn’t really working and with a new lens on the situation they recognized the skills that students learn in this mechatronics program is exactly what engineering technology should offer,” VanIngen-Dunn said.

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