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Federal Grant Will Help STCC Students Achieve STEM Degrees

Closing the Gap

Arlene Rodriguez

Arlene Rodriguez says the $3.4 million federal grant that STCC received will help Hispanic and low-income students obtain degrees in science, technology, engineering, and math.

Arlene Rodriguez says people who apply for a grant of any type need to have a compelling story about why the money is important.

The vice president of Academic Affairs at Springfield Technical Community College (STCC) knows developing the story is something that takes time, energy, dedication, and great attention to detail, which are all elements that were incorporated into a recent grant application the college submitted to the U.S. Department of Education.

The year of work that went into its preparation was well worth it, however, as the story met with unparallelled success: STCC was recently awarded one of the largest awards in its history: a five-year, $3.4 million grant for the program called the Hispanic and Low-income Transformed Education in STEM (HiLITES) Project.

It’s aimed at helping students attain degrees in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) classes and programs, and although STCC is the only community college in Massachusetts to win this award, Rodriguez says it’s appropriate due to the school’s demographics. To be eligible to receive the grant, a college must be designated as a Hispanic-Serving Institution, which is attained when at least 25% of the total student population is Hispanic.

STCC’s Hispanic population is 27.6%; it has been designated a Hispanic-Serving Institution since 2013; and 56% of its students receive federal Pell grants, which are limited to students with financial need.

“This grant was very competitive, and it took all I had not to jump up and down when I heard that we were given exactly what we asked for,” Rodriguez said. “It will give us an opportunity to make significant changes proposed by faculty and students who identified obstacles to success in STEM courses during interviews that took place before we applied for the grant. People were very honest about what stopped them from continuing in these programs, and faculty talked about where they see students struggle and what we need to change,” she continued. “It was a collaborative effort that was student-oriented; we are determined to make changes to improve students’ lives, and one of our goals is to increase the number of students in STEM disciplines.”

Indeed, it’s critical for local students as well as the economy; a report commissioned by Raytheon says a workforce prepared to tackle science is needed to drive future growth and innovation, and 67% of manufacturers are experiencing a shortage of qualified employees.

In addition, the U.S. Bureau of Labor estimates that 8,654,000 STEM-related jobs will exist in 2018, not including self-employed STEM individuals, and although the national average wage is $42,979, those with a STEM degree earn about $78,000.

STCC has more than a dozen STEM programs that range from architectural and building technology to computer-aided drafting, CNC operations, electrical engineering technology, and HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning), and many are not found in other community colleges across the state. But right now, only 14% of its Hispanic students and 11% of its low-income students enroll in STEM courses, and those who do need support to be successful.

This grant was very competitive, and it took all I had not to jump up and down when I heard that we were given exactly what we asked for.”

“There is a disconnect between Hispanic students and students with Pell grants when it comes to jobs that are available, and we want to bridge that gap,” said Rodriguez. “Our end goal is to prepare students for positions that are going unfilled, and this grant will allow us to provide them with the support they need to make a better life for themselves and provide for their families.”

She noted that the majority of Hispanic and low-income students enter college needing help in math and have lower rates of retention and graduation. “Students who are Hispanic and low-income perform worse on all three measures than students who are only Hispanic or low-income,” she told BusinessWest.

STCC President John Cook agreed. “We’re open-eyed about student needs, and this grant will help us address complex challenges. We look forward to building diversity across our unique array of STEM programs, and this is a chance to both expand initiatives while also trying new and creative approaches,” he said.

Multi-faceted Program

The grant money will be used to provide a wide spectrum of programs and services over a five-year period that will kick off in the spring. One of the new initiatives will introduce students in middle and high schools to STEM careers they may not know about in fields that include precision manufacturing, information technology, and HVAC, as there are job vacancies in these areas that pay well.

STCC’s plan is to bring the students to campus, introduce them to the faculty, show them the machines they will work on if they enter these programs, and educate them about careers associated with STEM degrees and the type of work they would perform on a daily basis.

“A student may not know these courses are available, or think they couldn’t succeed in them because they require a lot of math. But we have fantastic teachers who are able to teach these subjects in creative ways that make it easy to learn, and our faculty wants to make sure that our students succeed,” Rodriguez said, noting that, in some cases, students with an associate’s degree can earn $50,000 to $60,000 after graduation, and many have job offers before they matriculate.

There is also a plan to work with local high schools and expand the dual-enrollment system that allows students to go to the STCC campus and take courses before they receive their high-school diploma, as well as to expand programs with four-year colleges and improve the transfer rate by creating a seamless transition.

Assessments are conducted of a student’s math and English skills when they enter STCC, which is important because Rodriguez says many students are not ready for college-level math and need to take a series of courses to get them up to speed, which is a national problem at the majority of community colleges.

“The average age of our students is 26, and taking extra courses can be frustrating; they may have families or part-time jobs, so there is a sense of urgency to graduate,” she said, adding that many have GEDs, and even those who did well in high school may need to regain math skills after spending years away from the classroom.

“The grant will allow STCC to provide these students with enough support to take math and science courses without prolonging the time it takes them to graduate,” she continued, explaining that this may mean redesigning some STEM courses, offering additional tutoring, and providing more professional-development opportunities for instructors.

Students who are part-time and have not yet selected a major will also be exposed to STEM courses and careers through demonstrations, guest lectures, and other avenues.

In addition, two STEM advisers will be hired to conduct outreach and help students interested in STEM careers transition into the progams, and a STEM Center will be created as a centralized location for presentations, group study, tutoring, and faculty work. Rodriguez noted that the STEM Center will likely be located in space that will be vacated when the new Learning Commons is completed in 2018.

Change Agent

A 2013 report by the Commonwealth that addressed the skills gap says pipelines are powerful tools because they address both sides of the issue by giving people in the workforce the skills they need while responding to the changing nature of what employers are seeking from their workers.

The grant will help to strengthen the local pipeline, and since STCC graduates live locally, are committed to the community, and usually stay in the area, the grant is a win-win situation, Rodriguez said.

“Community colleges are the front lines of workforce education, and we can respond to employers’ needs in a way that four-year schools may not be able to,” she noted. “The essence of this institution has remained unchanged for the past 50 years, and it has helped to produce leaders in business, government, and education in various professions that benefit the community. Our college continues to be an engine of economic opportunity and development for the region.”

Indeed, it’s an ongoing story, and this chapter should have a happy ending as students are given the support they need to enter careers that pay well and local employers see an increase in qualified candidates to fill jobs, which will allow their companies to grow and thrive in a changing economy.

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