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Encouraging experimentation

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Varun Patel
's networking security internship with the city of Orangeburg, S.C., grew out of the stronger connections with employers that Orangeburg-Calhoun Technical College computer technology instructors initiated as a result of their participation in MentorLinks.


Photo: OCtech

Editor’s note: The article is part of a series focusing on MentorLinks, a program funded by the National Science Foundation and managed by the American Association of Community Colleges.

The MentorLinks: Advancing Technological Education program is designed, in part, to help colleges develop or strengthen technician training programs in STEM fields through mentoring, professional development opportunities and technical assistance.

One of the most unique aspects of MentorLinks is its flexibility.

To encourage innovation, the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) not only provides broad parameters for the type of improvements college can pursue, it allows faculty and administrators to revise their plans throughout the two-year grant.  

"MentorLinks grants are truly seed money. We want faculty and administrators to share their ideas with a mentor, utilize their mentor's feedback to experiment and test their improvement ideas, see what works, and make adjustments based on what they learn," said Ellen Hause, AACC program director for academic, student and community development. 

Using the MentorLinks community to improve STEM programsIn the 2014-2016 cohort, two colleges changed their objectives. In South Carolina, Orangeburg-Calhoun Technical College faculty planned to start a cyberforensics program, but decided to create stackable certificates in network security and data assurance after conferring with manufacturers and other employers about their unmet needs for computer technicians with these skills. Arizona's Mohave Community College intended to begin a manufacturing program for a company with plans to open a new facility. However, the team determined its rural desert community had much greater immediate need for more and better skilled heating, ventilation and air-conditioning technicians.

Employers' attention

Thanks to MentorLinks, the computer technology program at Orangeburg-Calhoun Technical College (OCtech) has new visibility that is leading to career opportunities for students.

"Industry is now coming and saying, 'Hey, we're looking for students who can come and do web design or whatever,'" said Y. Latrice Singletary, program coordinator and computer technology faculty member.  She explained that three years ago, before the college received its MentorLinks grant from AACC, employers didn't know the program existed or what its students had to offer. 

AACC MentorLinks' request for proposals from colleges seeking assistance to improve STEM technician programs and applications for mentors will be available beginning February 21 at AACC's MentorLinks webpage. College proposals and mentor applications are due April 28."But now, because of MentorLinks, our names are out there," she said.

To attain its MentorLinks goal of creating stackable certificates in network security and data assurance, Singletary and the other two instructors in the college's computer technology department convened an industry advisory committee. One committee member established a paid internship program for computer technology students with three local school districts' information technology departments. Two students have been hired as full-time employees after completing their internships.

The three OCtech faculty members have used the MentorLinks grant, which is funded by the NSF's Advanced Technological Education program, to refresh their technical skills as they earn high-value industry credentials. The faculty members maintained their full teaching loads, which ranged from seven to 10 courses, while taking the industry certification courses.

The timing of OCtech's curriculum enhancements coincided with a successful state government effort to attract international manufacturers to South Carolina. Automakers Volvo, BMW, and Chrysler have added facilities near the rural college and their goals for hiring skilled workers includes computer technicians with data assurance skills.

"We have to be able to secure not only the network on the manufacturing side of it, but you have to now secure the equipment itself," Singletary said. "For every manufacturing job that you have, you have a spin-off [of] several different others that it affects. And our area is huge with regard to that."

Find the right fit

Singletary credits Davina Pruitt-Mentle, the college's MentorLinks mentor, with helping her and her colleagues identify the skills that will be most in demand in their community and the best way to add them to the computer technology program.

Pruitt-Mettle has been co-director of the National CyberWatch Center, an ATE Center at Prince George's Community College in Maryland since 2009. She is now the lead for academic engagement at the National Initiative for Cybersecurity Education, which is part of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).

When the OCtech team members first met Pruitt-Mentle at the MentorLinks meeting in 2014, their plan was to launch a cyberforensics degree program. This was based on what they learned during professional development from the Advanced Cyberforensics Education Consortium, an ATE regional center at Daytona State College in Florida.

Following Pruitt-Mentle's advice, they checked with employers in the region and learned that data assurance and security skills were more in demand than cyberforensics. Cyberforensics applies scientific and engineering principles to the identification, verification and examination of digital evidence of system breaches. Data assurance and security skills focus on preventing breaches of digital information.

Because the fields overlap, the faculty incorporated their cyberforensics training into the new data assurance courses and drew on advice from personnel at ACE and CyberWatch to update their knowledge of data assurance technologies. With MentorLinks support for professional development, the three computer technology faculty members also attended programs in firewall management, application security and configuration offered at a Palo Alto Academy, which is part of a cybersecurity company. All three instructors are now Palo Alto accredited configuration engineers.

The "revamped" IT curriculum for the network security and information assurance degree contains stackable certificates. Most importantly, the entire program now follows the NICE Framework, which has been vetted with industry and government experts nationally.

Building on momentum

The OCtech educators are building on the momentum and connections they made during the visits Pruitt-Mentle arranged for them at multiple institutions in the Washington, D.C. area as part of their MentorLinks reverse site visits. They are working on articulation agreements with several colleges and universities, and they recently submitted three federal grant proposals to further enhance the program and add equipment.

Happily amazed about all that they have accomplished during MentorLinks, Singletary says the experience has prepared her and her colleagues to keep moving in new directions with the help of the ATE community.

They will stay in touch with Pruitt-Mentle and are already planning to work with her and local school districts on CyberWatch's "Cool Careers for Girls" event in the spring.

HVAC program progress

Mohave Community College has made progress toward its goal of reorganizing its heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) curriculum into a competency-based program.

Jason Gee, associate dean of instruction, explained the college wants "a more fluid and more accessible way to get instruction" to students.

During MentorLinks, Mohave personnel used a Developing a Curriculum (DACUM) process for two meetings with employers to learn about the skills they want. Gee said it was productive for the people who hire HVAC technicians to bounce their ideas off each other and to see how college personnel organized their comments into a curriculum.

“We recognized the need for change, but we couldn't have done it without the words that we were getting from our industry partners.” Gee said.

Multiple personnel changes on Mohave's MentorLinks team during the past two years means the new curriculum is still a work in progress. Vince DiNoto, director of the National Geospatial Technology Center of Excellence (GeoTech), served as mentor.

Despite the challenges, Gee said the valuable insights he and others at the college gained from MentorLinks are being applied to make the HVAC labs more effective. They are also striving to keep content up to date while they work toward implementing competency-based instruction.

Student recruitment by Darrell Pohlman, who joined Mohave's faculty in 2016, has increased HVAC enrollment to 30 students — the largest enrollment in the program's history.

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