STEM Advances at a Two-Year College, But Gap Still Looms Nationwide

Last October, when the University of Alabama-Birmingham hosted a National Science Foundation (NSF) workshop on improving student numbers in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), Anthony S. Tricoli was invited to attend as keynote speaker. As president of a two-year-institution, Georgia Perimeter College (GPC), he spoke to the importance of two-year colleges preparing more students for STEM fields.

Anthony S. Tricoli

“They invited a two-year-college president as keynote speaker,” said Tricoli. “It shows that we recognize that two-year colleges are important players in preparing STEM graduates.”

When Tricoli presented his speech, “Community Colleges: Radically Inclusive Partners in STEM,” he pointed out the importance of partnerships between two-year and four-year colleges and universities in addressing a STEM student shortage that our nation has experienced for several decades. His insistence on improving the numbers of graduates in science, technology, engineering and math was a familiar theme, but his emphasis on improving two-year and four-year college collaborations to do so was unique.

“Two-year colleges educate half of our students. We are now a big player in the STEM field and are strengthening our curriculum in these areas every day,” said Tricoli. “It is important for us to do this because it is important to our country.”

During the past few presidential administrations, strong efforts have been made to increase student graduation in STEM fields in order to maintain our country’s competitiveness. This call for more scientists, engineers, mathematicians and technology experts has been in direct response to our diminished strength in these fields.

According to the National Science Foundation, most other countries have surpassed the U.S. in STEM field education, and especially in natural sciences and engineering. In 1975, Japan was the only country with a higher ratio than the United States in natural science and engineering degrees per hundred 20- to 24- year-olds. All that has changed. This reality was revealed in a NSF 2009 report, which stated that, “By 1990, a few of these locations [23 countries and economies with data available and studied] had surpassed the U.S. ratio, and by 2005, nearly all had done so.”

To address this discrepancy, President George W. Bush spoke to our decreased competitiveness in his 2006 State of the Union address. He established the American Competitiveness Initiative and called for an increase in federal funding for research and development projects and for U.S. higher education graduates in STEM fields. In November 2009, President Obama launched the “Educate to Innovate” Campaign for Excellence in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Education. He announced a series of partnerships and financial support involving leading companies, foundations, nonprofits, and science and engineering societies to motivate and inspire young students to pursue STEM field careers.

These presidential efforts reflect an ongoing, larger nationwide push to improve our graduate numbers in STEM fields. For example, the National Science Foundation has numerous programs in STEM education, as well as the National Research Council. In addition, the United States National Academies, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, numerous states and multiple nonprofit organizations have all played a role in increasing these STEM numbers.

Many schools, from elementary to the highest ranks of higher education, have also been working with federal agencies, states and organizations to do their part in advancing STEM education. Back in Atlanta, at GPC, Tricoli has also focused on improving student interest in these fields, given that his school and so many other two-year-colleges have become key players in establishing the groundwork for students’ success in higher education.

Since embarking on his presidency in 2006, Tricoli has been working to improve programs, especially those in STEM fields, and widening the education pipeline between his school and dozens of others in Georgia and beyond. As president of the third-largest institution within a 35-college and university system of Georgia, with 25,549 students, he has focused intently on addressing the particular needs of students who might pursue careers and education beyond its walls.

“GPC is unique in that it has completed 38 transfer agreements (TAG) allowing students to automatically transfer from their current program at GPC into a four-year college or university,” said Tricoli. “These four-year institutions represent a broad range, including in-state and out-of-state, private and public, large and small. The diversity of TAG Agreements allows flexibility for student needs, allowing students to select the institution that best meets their needs for success.”

Facilitating success for students when and if they choose to transfer to a four-year college is the first step toward ensuring that those interested in STEM-related fields continue their education beyond two years.

GPC

The other important step that GPC has taken has been to develop curriculum and programs that inspire and educate students in STEM-related fields during their first years of college.

Since 2004, GPC has initiated several programs and activities designed to increase the numbers of STEM majors at this institution and continuing in the same fields at four-year colleges and universities. For example, the school’s MESA program, launched in 2004 and based on the California MESA program in community colleges, provides math, engineering and science academic enrichment to GPC’s STEM students.

The MESA program, established nationally in the 1970s, began with students as young as elementary age and as old as college level. At GPC and other two-year colleges, the program is designed to ensure that these students successfully transfer to four-year institutions with career plans that involve math-based majors such as physics, engineering, computer science, chemistry or geology. MESA also provides students with social-networking and career-preparation opportunities, which are especially important given that students live off campus and balance schoolwork with jobs. In addition, this program offers students career fairs, transfer fairs, stipends, scholarships and visits to potential transfer institutions.

During this past academic year, the school’s MESA program served approximately 75 active students. Of them, 66 are expected to transfer into a STEM-related field at a four-year college/university by the end of the summer.

Beyond the MESA program, GPC, in partnership with the University of Georgia and five other institutions, received a Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP) grant from the National Science Foundation in 2005. Its purpose has been to increase the number of underrepresented minorities earning bachelor’s degrees as well as graduate degrees in STEM disciplines.

Of the five institutions participating in the Peach State LSAMP Alliance, Georgia Perimeter College is the only two-year institution. As Georgia’s largest, GPC is the main feeder school for students transferring into most of the four-year colleges and universities in the state. 

Today the LSAMP Alliance provides a support system that includes tutoring, mentoring and enrichment opportunities in the form of workshops, seminars, field trips and other activities. Students can also take part in summer research and internships and receive monetary support in the form of stipends during fall and spring semesters (provided they maintain the required GPA and fulfill other criteria, which include participation in various workshops and seminars and five hours of service).

“The opportunity for students to get to know one another and work together is also an important benefit. Networking with faculty and fellow LSAMP scholars at the four-year institutions helps make transfer easier for the students,” said Tricoli. “A professional conference is also held each fall. Last year, there were over 350 Alliance students and faculty in attendance at the fall conference. Students who have participated in research during the year or during the past summer present their findings either orally or as poster presentations.”

For the first three years of LSAMP, during the summers of 2006, 2007 and 2008, GPC also sponsored a Summer Bridge for high school graduates. Students enrolled in the Bridge program in the summer before matriculating at GPC or one of the Peach State LSAMP institutions. Here students received daily sessions in math to help prepare them for the college math placement tests, in addition to classes in computer science, engineering and the various science disciplines.

The purpose of these sessions was to help pique student interest in the STEM fields and help them decide on a major. Students took field trips related to their coursework and visited the other Alliance institutions.

“Last summer, GPC also held a Transfer Summer Bridge experience for current GPC LSAMP scholars as they prepared to transfer to a four-year institution. The students were involved in small research projects and took field trips to each of the four-year Alliance institutions,” said Tricoli. “The Transfer Summer Bridge will be held again during the summer of 2010.”

In addition to enhanced curriculum provided by these programs, GPC also offers students a plethora of courses in biology, chemistry, computer science, engineering, geology, mathematics and physics (all STEM-related subjects). But despite these courses and national programs, GPC and many other two-year and four-year colleges and K- 12 schools are going to have to push even harder to truly change student numbers in STEM fields.

“The state of science, technology, engineering and mathematics education in our country is reaching a critical stage. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, jobs requiring science, engineering or technical training will increase by more than 24 percent by 2014 to 6.3 million,” said Tricoli. “Meanwhile, it is anticipated that our schools will need 200,000 or more new teachers in science and math over the next decade due to retirements, according to estimates by such groups as the Business-Higher Education Forum in Washington. Furthermore, in order to improve the U.S. economy, science and technology are and will continue to be drivers of economic growth and national security, and yet students’ interest in these critical areas is either flat or declining.”

These concerns hold true in GPC’s home state and nationwide. “To illustrate the problem here in Georgia, only nine chemistry teachers and three physics teachers graduated from University System of Georgia institutions in 2006, yet we were predicting the need for 415 new chemistry teachers and 210 new physics teachers by 2010. Increasing the numbers of STEM majors and STEM students pursuing teaching careers is an important goal of both GPC and the University System of Georgia.”

The challenge of addressing STEM shortfalls nationwide is one that a school like GPC or other two-year colleges can’t face alone. And that’s exactly why Tricoli is determined to do his part in building bridges and collaboration with schools throughout the country.

“Bridge programs are becoming more common. Educators around the country are recognizing that, in order to increase the number of students graduating in STEM fields, it is vitally important to implement efforts to assure that those students successfully transition to the fouryear institution. I expect this trend to continue to grow,” said Tricoli.

“In Georgia, the University System, with its 35 institutions, has implemented multiple STEM initiatives that not only focus on specific STEM fields but also on producing quality teachers of STEM. So in Georgia, we are working very hard on this. My colleagues across the country tell me they are doing the same at their institutions.”

As Tricoli aims to “transform education for our students as quickly as I can,” he looks back at when he was a youngster and how the world of science and technology looked different back then.

“When I was growing up, we’d look at an item, and if it was made in Japan, we didn’t buy it. Now a number of people won’t buy Americanmade cars,” he said. “In order for the U.S. to be competitive again, we need to train students in STEM fields. It has always been a race for science and math, and now it’s just a race to compete in an area where we were leading.”

For Tricoli, that means change and “improving the way our students learn and are educated.” “But I’m a change agent, and my goal is to give this school and its students a platform to be successful.”