STEM

Leading a STEM Regional Collaborative

By Rebecca L. Weber

One college in Connecticut is set up to help students gain the skills they need and to help employers fill the gap.

Norwalk Community College (NCC), in Connecticut, is one of three colleges chosen by Jobs for the Future and Achieving the Dream to lead a STEM Regional Collaborative to prepare more students for high-paying “middle skill” STEM jobs.

The STEM grant, funded by the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust, emanated from strategic developments with which the college was already involved. “It was a natural evolution of other things we engaged in,” says NCC President David L. Levinson.

For example, the U.S. Department of Labor had awarded the college a $12.1 million Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training (TAACCT) grant, which was used to focus on health and life sciences. The grant provided local and statewide support for initiatives, bringing together five community colleges, an online college and a state university.

Another major success was the creation of NCC’s $40 million Center for Science, Health and Wellness, replete with science labs, which opened in 2012, thanks to major private support. Local donors, which included hospitals, health care providers, corporations and individuals, contributed $20 million to the building — the largest capital campaign that the college had ever conducted; the state of Connecticut provided the balance.

“In many areas, you can’t go to a health care practitioner without running into one of our students,” Levinson says. “It’s an initiative that will serve us well for many years to come.”

Refining the STEM pathways approach

As NCC has tried to refine its STEM pathways approach, the college has reached out across its own campus and beyond, to community sponsors, local businesses and statewide entities.

“We want to try to get down to the nitty-gritty, to try to home in on the skills employers are looking at, what are the skills of our students,” Levinson says. “Employers are open to our students, but most have had a baccalaureate requirement. We are breaking all this down in a more of a competency-based level so that we can show there’s not a need for the degree per se, it’s a need for certain skill levels. And we believe the programs that we have will do that.”

Levinson says this approach has helped establish Fairfield County as a major center for STEM, especially in the fields of computer science, engineering and health sciences. Last year, 311 STEM students completed their coursework. NCC enrolls about as many students in criminal justice, but STEM jobs are expected to increase more rapidly.

“When you look at the labor market analysis for our area, those are the areas that are going to be growing,” Levinson says. “With health and IT, you almost can’t go wrong with getting students in those pathways.”

Early college at NCC

NCC helped establish the first Pathways in Technology Early College High School (P-TECH) in Connecticut, based on the successful P-TECH school in Brooklyn, New York.

Given the ubiquitous nature of IT, NCC wanted to provide a background in programming and coding that could be applied to a variety of careers. Numerous companies with IT needs, such as Starwood and Priceline.com, are in the area, which gave an important focus to the Pathways in Technology High School.

Each year, about 85 to 90 students are selected via open lottery. They enter the program simultaneously as both ninth graders and as NCC students. The goal for these students is to graduate from high school with an associate degree.

Curriculum is co-created by faculty at both campuses. Some NCC classes are taught at the high school, and sometimes students head to NCC’s campus. A distinct plus to the partnership is its ability to preempt the need for developmental work. “Any kind of remedial needs that a student would have, we can take care of while they’re in high school. We won’t have that problem of students coming to community college and needing immediate course work,” Levinson says.

“We have all these employers who literally have hundreds of jobs available — jobs that we believe our students would be excellent at, and qualified for,” Levinson says.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the TAACCT grant amount.

Rebecca L. Weber

is a contributor to the 21st-Century Center.

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