Magazine article Techniques

Building Stem Outreach Opportunities: One College's Experience

Magazine article Techniques

Building Stem Outreach Opportunities: One College's Experience

Article excerpt

Northeast Alabama Community College (NACC) is located in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains and serves two rural northeast Alabama counties. As is the case with many areas of Appalachia, at one time the local economy relied heavily on the textile industry. In fact, at the economy's zenith in 2000, there were more than 8,000 people in one county directly employed in the hosiery industry. By 2010, however, the economy had changed, and only about 800 people were still employed in the hosiery industry and all but a few textile mills had closed.

Foreseeing a change in the economy and wanting to expand beyond academic transfer programming, NACC put into place some 13 new career and technical education (CTE) programs (some STEM-related) from 2001-2010, including machine tool technology, welding, industrial systems technology and engineering technology. With these programs, administrators at NACC wished to provide additional opportunities to the community, with the hope that enhanced skills would attract new companies to the area.

When a community's perception of manufacturing is rooted in a waning textile industry, it is important to promote a more advanced, robotics-driven type of manufacturing. While NACC was revamping its CTE curriculum during the first decade of the 21st century, economic developers were also working to draw new companies to the area, bringing with them modern manufacturing and distribution processes that surpassed those of even the most high-tech textile manufacturers from the 1990s.

While the changes at NACC were aimed at postsecondary students, college officials pondered how best to get the message out to middle and secondary students of the opportunities available to them in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields in their community. How could they become exposed to crucial STEM skills that would make them more marketable in the workplace?

BEST Robotics

With the creation of new STEM-related programs, college officials were on a mission to provide opportunities for students in middle and high school to gain real-world experiences in STEM, with the ultimate goal being that they would choose to enter a STEM field in college and after.

In 2011, NACC employees were introduced to Boosting Engineering, Science and Technology (BEST) Robotics, an innovative six-week project-based STEM program that provides opportunities for students in grades five through 12 to become competent and confident in applying STEM principles to real-life challenges.

A year later, NACC, assisted by a cadre of local partners, launched a local version of the competition-Northeast Alabama BEST Robotics. A unique feature of the BEST competition is that each team gets the exact same materials to work with-all of which are provided by BEST officials. These officials also offer technical support and mentoring to the teams as needed. "BEST is a workforce development program cleverly disguised as a robotics competition," said Nicole Carroll, co-director of the Northeast Alabama BEST hub, which now reaches more than 500 students in a rural three-county area. "The competition is about so much more than robotics," said Carroll. In fact, robot performance accounts for only 15 percent of the total score.

There are three main events in the competition: Kick Off, Mall Day and Game Day. At Kick Off, teams are given a problem they must solve using only the provided tools-a robot control system and a plastic tote containing spare parts, including plywood, threaded rod, nuts, bolts, duct tape, wood glue and wire. Only items in the kit may be used, and the robot control system is returned after the competition to be reused in subsequent years.

Four weeks later, teams gather in a public place (often a local mall) for Mall Day. Since there is no mall in the NACC service area, this event is held in conjunction with a local career fair. Mall Day is an opportunity for teams to engage in a little "corporate espionage" by checking out how the competition has solved the robot challenge. …

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