Research News

Preparing high-tech workers, meeting needs of employers

NSF celebrates 20 years of advancing technological education

In the U.S., almost half of all undergraduate students are educated at community colleges. The most recent data show that about 40 percent of community-college students represent the first generation in their family to attend college. Eighteen percent are Hispanic, 15 percent are Black, and 12 percent are students with disabilities.

The community college environment reflects not only demographic changes in the population, but also changes in the economy. As less-skilled jobs are less available, there is a need for more education and training in specialized fields to build or rebuild a career path toward a secure future.

This microcosm of students is key to the National Science Foundation's (NSF) commitment to support high-quality educational experiences in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (the STEM fields) while recruiting underrepresented groups into STEM and building the STEM workforce.

The value of advanced technological education

In 1992, Congress presented NSF with its first-ever mandate for program creation, known as the Scientific and Advanced Technology Act. In response to this legislation, the NSF established the Advanced Technological Education (ATE) program, with the overall goal of increasing the knowledge and skills of technicians who are educated at associate-degree-granting colleges.

In funding community colleges, the program gives them a leadership role in strengthening the skills of STEM technicians. The community colleges work in partnership with universities, secondary schools, business and industry and government agencies to design and carry out model workforce development initiatives in fields as diverse as biotechnology, cybsersecurity and advanced manufacturing.

At the core of the program are ATE Centers, which maintain critical industry, academic, and government agency partnerships, and act as national and regional hubs for innovation in technological education. In the first year of ATE program funding, there were only three such centers. Today, there are 39 spread across the country. As of early 2013, the ATE program administered a total of 292 active grants, received by colleges and universities in 41 states, in addition to Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico.

From undergraduate achievement to careers

Like the community college system, the ATE program is far-reaching: In 2012, nearly 54,000 undergraduate students were directly impacted by ATE, in programs currently offered at thousands of educational institutions throughout the nation. This number does not capture all the programs ATE initiated or influenced during the past 20 years; many of them continue to educate students in innovative ways without NSF support.

Honoring NSF's commitment to broadening participation in STEM education, 42 percent of the students who benefited from ATE educational programs in 2012 were minorities, in numbers that are nearly commensurate with U.S. population demographics. Many students in ATE programs also are first-generation college attendees, who represent a critical sector of the American workforce.

ATE projects generally have strong relationships with local industry, and offer students opportunities beyond the classroom. Research experiences and internships not only enrich the undergraduate experience but also strengthen students' hiring potential after they earn their associate degrees. For example, Casey Kraus completed her associate degree at Indian River State College (IRSC) in 2012. Her degree program included a six-week internship at a commercial nuclear power plant, which has since led to her employment by Florida Power & Light (FPL) as a third-year apprentice.

"The IRSC and FPL's Power Plant Technology program greatly prepared me for my career at the St. Lucie Nuclear Power Plant. Although there are some things in the field that can never be completely recreated in a classroom, I believe that IRSC and the FPL subject matter experts made the program as close to real life at the plant as possible. Everything I've learned in the program I apply in some way to almost every job I go on each and every day...The possibilities are absolutely endless," said Kraus, who is one of the students featured in ATE@20: Two Decades of Advancing Technological Education, published this fall.

Meanwhile, ATE fills a critical need for employers who depend on the availability and competence of highly skilled technicians to support their manufacturing and business operations. According to Werner Eikenbusch, who leads the Manager Training and Development effort at BMW Manufacturing in Greenville, S.C., ATE has played a vital role since its inception in supporting BMW's mission.

"We are currently actively involved with two ATE centers, AMTEC and CA2VES, to advance the recruiting and development of highly skilled manufacturing and automotive technicians," said Eikenbusch. "The availability of a skilled workforce was one of the key considerations for BMW to locate our manufacturing plant in South Carolina. Twenty years later, it has been a key driver in our success."

Engaging young adults with hands-on science

The 2013 ATE Principal Investigators Conference, held in Washington, D.C., in October, brought together approximately 800 ATE educators and students for presentations and discussions of key issues in advanced technological education. ATE faculty enthusiastically shared stories of student engagement from their own ATE projects.

In one example, the Stem Cell Pipeline course, offered at the City College of San Francisco in California, introduces both high-school students and their teachers to the fundamentals of cell culture techniques and research using stem cells. In a program evaluation, one excited student stated, "It's amazing that we pretty much made our own neurons/cardiomyocytes." Additionally, the investigators highlighted a key finding of their project: exposure to hands-on stem cell science increased student interest in pursuing a STEM degree after secondary school - not just a biotechnology degree, but other STEM degrees as well.

The Marine Advanced Technology Education Center at Monterey Peninsula College in California supports a suite of underwater robotics competitions each year. In June 2013, more than 50 teams and 500 students competed in the center's 12th Annual International Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) Competition. The underwater competition, which brings students in direct contact with potential employers, requires student and ROV teams to compete in tasks designed to mimic undersea workplace challenges.

According to Jill Zande, co-principal investigator and the ROV competition coordinator, "The competition focuses on more than technical skills. It challenges students to think of themselves as entrepreneurs and transform their teams into companies to gain an understanding of how a business works. It also encourages them to think critically and creatively, solve problems, develop trouble-shooting techniques, and work as an integral part of a team--all important 21st-century workforce skills--and skills that the employers who support the competition are looking for."

Providing a career pathway

In many locations, ATE opportunities are offered to students beginning in secondary school, with participants often earning college-level credit. More importantly, these programs also provide students direct pathways into technical associate degree tracks.

As a result of the hundreds of articulation agreements that ATE programs have instigated, the curricula of advanced technology programs at two-year schools align with the expectations at local four-year institutions. This ensures that students who wish to pursue bachelor-level degrees in STEM areas can readily do so.

ATE projects are also able to customize their approach to particular populations and settings. As tribal communities expand their workforces, the need for technicians and individuals earning advanced STEM educations continues to increase. In response to the rapid expansion of tribal college STEM education, many ATE programs, such as those offered by the National Partnership for Environmental Technology Education (PETE), have developed targeted programs aimed at supporting the 37 Tribal Colleges and five colleges in the U.S. Pacific Rim territories, where incorporating the unique cultural characteristics of these communities increases educational program effectiveness.

"STEM education is more meaningful to indigenous students if it is placed within a cultural context and taught using a holistic learning pedagogy," explained Kirk J. Laflin, PETE executive director. PETE's faculty institutes provide educators from Tribal Colleges with technical and pedagogical skills to better instruct indigenous students and prepare them for new and sustainable "green jobs."

"NSF support makes it possible for PETE to provide opportunities to improve their environmental and STEM programs through school-specific program assistance, faculty development institutes--including a dedicated indigenous pedagogy session--and mini-grants to help implement the resources provided," Laflin said.

Meanwhile, more than 1 million veterans, many of whom have obtained technical backgrounds as a result of their military service, are expected to return to the U.S. within the next five years. Further technological training and credentialing can play significant roles in the success of veterans transitioning to the civilian workforce. Hence, some ATE programs, such as the National Resource Center for Aerospace Technical Education (SpaceTEC®), specifically target U.S. military veterans with career pathway opportunities. In particular, SpaceTEC® has existing partnerships with the U.S. Air Force, Navy, and Army educational portals for service members.

Other opportunities for undergraduate students include ATE program scholarships to attend industry conferences. Justin Patten, operations manager at Hysitron Inc., says that industry conferences not only expose companies like Hysitron Inc. to potential hires but also benefits students' understanding of potential employers.

Serving the priorities of the Administration

Undergraduate STEM education has been highlighted as a crucial administration priority: In February 2012, the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology submitted a report titled, "Engage to Excel," which called for the need to produce 1 million additional college graduates with STEM degrees. The current administration has prioritized several additional key areas of STEM, including advanced manufacturing technology, biotechnology, and cybersecurity technologies. ATE projects and centers are directly supporting these goals by developing new curricula and innovative educational approaches.

At the same time, professional development is a core aspect of ATE. To ensure that ATE classrooms remain populated with eager students who are prepared for college-level STEM coursework, continued investments in the strength of STEM secondary school teachers are critical. Hence, one-third of the individuals who receive professional development support through ATE projects are teachers at the secondary school level.

For example, the ATE Project for Physics Faculty, which is the result of a combined effort between Lee College of Baytown, Texas, and Estrella Mountain Community College of Avondale, Ariz., offers intensive three-day professional and curriculum development opportunities to teachers. Historically, of all the sciences taught at the high school level, physics has had the comparatively fewest teachers with subject-specific degrees. However, since 2006, nearly 500 instructors have participated in this ATE project, strengthening their content knowledge as part of a significant intervention in high school physics education.

ATE into the next decade

Growth in STEM career fields is expected to continue into the future, and the need for advanced technicians is predicted to follow. ATE projects are poised to continue meeting this need from a variety of perspectives. In 2012, ATE reported more than 8,000 project collaborations with business and industry partners, which ensure that ATE curricula remain cutting-edge and relevant to vital areas of U.S. STEM fields.

Further, by grabbing student attention in secondary school, providing robust career pathways for technology-oriented students, and supporting STEM teacher professional development, ATE projects will continue to fill a critical need.

Additional resources

The Evaluation Resource Center for ATE (EvaluATE) conducts an annual survey of all ATE programs and provides many resources, including information on student demographics, articulation agreements, professional development, and much more.

ATE@20: Two Decades of Advancing Technological Education highlights the history, accomplishments, and activities of the ATE program since it began in 1992. It was published this fall by ATE Central of the Internet Scout Research Group at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. ATE Central's web site of ATE resources also includes the weekly ATE@20 blog about innovative ATE faculty and successful students.

A video summary and photostream of the 2013 Marine Advanced Technology Education (MATE) Center's 12th Annual International Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) Competition.