PHCC will expand 'STEM' offerings

January 30, 2012

By ASHLEY JACKSON - Bulletin Staff Writer

Patrick Henry Community College is creating a new division for courses and programs in STEM — Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics — and needs to hire a dean of science, technology, engineering and math.

The new division will be part of the college by the fall semester, PHCC Vice President Kristen Bishop said.

PHCC already has STEM programs or courses in areas such as chemistry, accounting, engineering, math and computer-aided drafting and design (CADD). It also offers associate degrees in general engineering technologies and health technology-nursing, as well as certificates in CADD, automotive engine technology and pharmacy technician, among others. However, the college does not have packaged programs, Bishop said.

With the new division, the college will create more courses and programs related to those fields, she said.

With packaged programs, more opportunities will be available for students to transfer to a four-year university or take a job in a STEM or health science field.

A job in a STEM field “is where their future is,” Bishop said.

The college is acting in response to Gov. Bob McDonnell’s recent budget recommendations that ask colleges to focus more on STEM courses and programs.

In McDonnell’s budget proposal, the Virginia Community College System (VCCS) would receive no budget cuts, but colleges will be required to reallocate funds to the Top Jobs 21 legislation priorities. The legislation places a greater emphasis on the high-demand STEM subjects.

The budget provides the VCCS with $11.7 million for institution-specific initiatives focused on STEM and health science programs, improving retention, and modeling and simulation programs. Also in the budget, the VCCS would receive $2 million more each year for noncredit work force development courses.

Bishop said the specific funding PHCC will receive is not known now because it depends on PHCC’s average enrollment, which has not yet been calculated.

To focus more on modeling and simulation programs, the college and several other groups recently brought a mobile fabrication lab — called the “fab lab” — to the campus. The 250-square-foot lab, which was created by MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms, features modern tools for creative digital fabrication.

After the lab’s visit to the area, a feasibility study on locating a fabrication lab locally showed that a lab would not be self-sustaining, or pay for itself. The lab would not bring in revenue, so outside entities would have to fund it, Bishop said.

PHCC still is collaborating with the Martinsville-Henry County Economic Development Corp., The Harvest Foundation and the New College Institute to decide if such a lab should be built here and how it could be sustainable, Bishop said, adding that everyone will investigate if the educational benefits outweigh the costs of having the resource available here.

PHCC currently has modeling and simulation programs, such as CADD and electrical engineering courses, but the college would like to expand those options, she said.

In the area of work force training, the PHCC staff has been meeting with companies such as RTI International Metals Inc. to understand their training needs so the college can expand its training courses and tailor them to the skills needed, she said.

The governor’s proposals also call for colleges to find ways to improve retention, or keeping students in the college.

For the past eight years, PHCC has been involved in either the national organization Achieving the Dream or the Developmental Education Initiative, which are geared toward improving retention.

According to Dean of Developmental and Transitional Education Greg Hodges, a few of the techniques used to improve retention have been:

• Cooperative learning techniques that enhance student engagement and critical thinking.

• The Southern Center for Active Learning Excellence, with support from its nonprofit foundation. In addition to training nearly all full-time and adjunct PHCC faculty, the center has hosted 18 colleges and 141 individuals on site and traveled to 29 institutions to train more than 470 people on cooperative learning strategies.

• Accelerated learning for developmental math and English. Accelerated learning permits a student to enroll in a college-level course and a developmental course at the same time.

• Case Management Advising in which advisers use statistical models that predict which courses fit students’ needs based on student-provided information.

The cooperative learning techniques have shown the most success in improving retention because the “more connections that students make,” the more likely they will stay in school, Hodges said.

This month, PHCC started a new approach to retain students by reducing the number of developmental math credits required from 16 credits to nine. Students can complete those credits either through accelerated learning, in the classroom or through computer-based work at their own paces, Hodges said.

The quicker students can get through their developmental courses and on to their degree courses, the better the chance of retaining them in school, he added.

PHCC is looking into reducing the number of credits required for developmental English as well, but those plans will not be final until January 2013, Hodges said.


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