Palm Beach State awarded National Science Foundation grant to boost work-readiness for STEM fields

The demand for skilled technicians in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields has reached a critical level nationwide and in South Florida. With an $868,105 grant from the National Science Foundation, Palm Beach State College plans to do something about it.

Palm Beach State’s InnovATE project aims to awaken student interest in STEM fields and expose them to a continuum of outreach, education and support that leads to satisfying, high-demand careers. The three-year grant will enhance targeted associate degree programs, as well as deploy robust initiatives that promote STEM careers to selected middle and high school students who attend Title I schools in the School District of Palm Beach County—all with the goal of increasing the number of PBSC graduates in STEM disciplines, particularly underrepresented minorities and women.

PBSC awarded NSF grant
Associate Professor Oleg Andric oversees students working in PBSC’s Electrical Power Technology lab on the Palm Beach Gardens campus.

Current graduates of Palm Beach State’s Electrical Power Technology Associate in Science degree program are rapidly finding employment in the local engineering technology, power, aerospace and manufacturing industries. However, many more graduates are needed to fill the demand. In response, the College is planning to offer a new A.S. degree in Engineering Technology, with a grant-supported option for accelerated completion, starting in the fall term.

While increasing STEM awareness in designated Palm Beach County middle and high schools, the InnovATE project will provide students enrolled in PBSC’s Electrical Power Technology and Engineering Technology programs with intensive academic support, including customized mathematics laboratories. In addition, higher education pathways will be developed, enabling PBSC students to go from these associate degree programs into STEM-related bachelor’s degree programs offered by Florida institutions.

“This is a significant award, and the reviewers agreed that it has the potential to be transformative,” says Jay Matteson, Ph.D., principal investigator for the grant and director of Palm Beach State’s Institute for Energy and Environmental Sustainability. “The InnovATE project will provide a platform for collaboration at all levels—the College, the school district and industry—that’s what makes it transformative. We want to develop an integral, self-sustaining organization in which everyone is contributing to the success of the students. We believe we can make a difference.”

One of InnovATE’s collaborations will be the creation of the BEST (Boosting Engineering, Science and Technology) summer program for high school students to stimulate interest in STEM and improve college readiness.

“They’ll be doing all kinds of hands-on activities, and we hope to get their creative juices flowing,” says BEST developer Oleg Andric, co-principal investigator for InnovATE as well as associate professor and department chair of the Electrical Power Technology program. “We are looking forward to all of the exciting things that we’ll be doing with the school district and the great support of our industry partners. Starting with middle school, we’ll always be in their face, doing something fun with them and showcasing that engineering, science and technology are not scary…hopefully that results in some significant increases and interest in these fields.”

Along with interest, students need a good knowledge of algebra to succeed in the College’s programs. To this end, the InnovATE team hopes to remove the “fear factor,” as noted by co-principal investigator and mathematics professor Ira A. Rosenthal, who will work with Andric to develop contextualized Intermediate Algebra labs that integrate problems related to engineering and the activities done in the BEST summer program. “Math is always a challenging topic for students,” she says. “We’re trying to make it more interesting, and hopefully students will be more successful if they see the connections and relevance of math to their own area of study. That’s the goal.”

The grant-winning project is titled InnovATE, both as a reflection of its mission and a nod to the grantor: NSF’s Advanced Technological Education (ATE) grant program. Designed for community colleges, the ATE program promotes partnerships between academic institutions and industry to improve the education of science and engineering technicians for high-technology fields.

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