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Principal Investigators Encourage Faculty to Utilize ATE Program

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As the Advanced Technological Education program marks 25 years of existence within the National Science Foundation, three community college educators who were among the first cohort of ATE principal investigators (PIs) were asked to reflect on the program’s evolution and their experiences as STEM leaders.  

The three ATE program veterans—Ellen Kabat Lensch, Elaine L. Craft, and David Harrison—urge all community college STEM educators to utilize the many instructional resources and professional development opportunities created and offered by ATE projects and centers. (Visit ATE Central for program-wide information and links, and to access the database of ATE materials for use in specific fields and technologies.)

The principal investigators also encourage two-year college faculty members to consider how their ideas for improving STEM technician education align with their institutions’ strategic goals, and then explore the ATE program solicitation ( to see if their ideas meet the criteria for ATE funding.

There is not much time before this year’s October 15 deadline for proposals. But it is never too early to begin preparing a proposal for next year. ATE proposals are next due October 3, 2019 and October 1, 2020.

Environmental health and safety technicians practice with simulated hazardous materials during ATEEC environmental education programs.

Environmental health and safety technicians practice with simulated hazardous materials during ATEEC environmental education programs.

"Raising the Bar" for Excellence & Innovation

Ellen Kabat Lensch is Vice Chancellor for Workforce and Economic Development at the Eastern Iowa Community Colleges and principal investigator of Advanced Technology Environmental Education Center (ATEEC) in Davenport, Iowa.

As the principal investigator of one of three ATE centers created in the first round of ATE grant awards in 1994, Lensch has served as ATEEC’s leader for the entire 25 years of the ATE program.

Lensch says she still occasionally is asked about her original grant proposal, which led to the college’s national leadership in education programs and digital resources for environmental technicians.

“Our idea was great—the goal was to empower and improve environmental programs at community colleges by sharing resources so that they did not have to reinvent the wheel—but technology at the time was rustic at best. We did not have email; everything went snail mail.  And it was a couple years before our center had a real website,” she wrote in an email.

What is the most interesting aspect of the ATE program’s evolution during the past 25 years?

EKL: “Back in 1994, the first ATE ‘gathering’ involved a very small number of pioneers who all looked like my dad. Not that there was anything wrong with looking like my dad but I stood out as a young female and I don’t remember anyone of color. It has been incredibly rewarding to see the growth of ATE reflect the entire face of community colleges and technician education.”

What are the noteworthy changes that the ATE program has facilitated?

EKL: “One area that I believe has also evolved is the respect for community colleges, technicians and technician education and training.  This change was catalyzed by industry endorsing and certifying technicians. …

“We have also seen tremendous growth in the expectation and expansion of technical education to integrate soft skills.”

Why has it been important to you and your college to be involved in the ATE community?  Has your college or you personally had an ATE grant every year since 1994?

EKL:  “The level of excellence of the ATE colleges and colleagues continues to raise the bar for our college. We always send a variety of our faculty and staff to the ATE conferences to highlight the excellence and innovation that is out there. And the ATE community is one of the most genuine when it comes to sharing and assisting others. They continue to make us ‘up our game.’

“And yes, we have been funded with the center grant and other project grants every year since 1994.  We are incredibly fortunate.”

SCATE's curriculum uses a just-in-time format that mimics technicians’ workplace tasks.

SCATE's curriculum uses a just-in-time format that mimics technicians’ workplace tasks.

Empowering Faculty as Change Agents

Elaine L. Craft serves as the principal investigator of three current ATE initiatives: the South Carolina ATE National Resource Center for Expanding Excellence in Technician Education (SCATE); Mentor-Connect: Leadership Development and Outreach Initiative for ATE; and the Hispanic Serving Institution ATE Hub. All are hosted by the Florence-Darlington Technical College in Florence, South Carolina.

Craft considers the ATE program participation the best way “to empower faculty as change agents and to develop leaders among STEM faculty.”

By funding faculty-driven projects and centers, Craft says the ATE program has become “a catalyst for significant improvements in technician education.”

She pointed out that ATE, unlike most types of grants that community colleges receive, expects faculty to lead implementation. “This type of faculty empowerment most often results in improvements in both faculty and student performance, and the outcomes from these grants can make a significant contribution to economic development in a college service area,” she wrote in an email.

What do you think is most interesting about how the ATE program has evolved?

EC:The variety of funding opportunities offered within ATE has morphed over time and continues to change. To the credit of those running the ATE program, changes almost always reflect feedback from grantees in addition to other drivers of change. The demand for highly skilled technicians doesn’t change, but the type of technicians in demand does change. Even if disciplines don’t change over time, the knowledge and skills needed for those jobs continue to advance. The trend for a number of years was toward fewer distinct grantees receiving awards, but that has been reversed by the introduction of the Small Grants for Institutions New to ATE opportunity coupled with NSF ATE support for aggressive outreach initiatives to diversify the institutions and PIs in the ATE Program.

SC ATE has broadened its mission beyond engineering technology to address a wide array of STEM workforce and education needs. What is it about ATE that allowed you as principal investigator to take the center and your multiple projects in various directions? Were you responding to shifts in the solicitation over the years? Or using the opportunities within the solicitation to address needs that you or your national visiting committee identified?

EC: “The nature of NSF funding in general, not just ATE, is that as a PI you are expected to behave like a scientist.  A project is an experiment where the PI will implement strategies designed to achieve a desired outcome.  The PI is expected to determine, through evaluation and related activities, whether or not the strategies worked (and for whom, under what conditions). If parameters change, or an intervention isn’t producing the desired outcome, the PI is expected to change strategies, participants, leadership, or whatever seems to be a barrier or is not working to find something or someone different that may achieve the desired outcome. 

“PIs are also encouraged to pay attention to what other grantees are doing, to learn from the work of others, and to be creative in looking for new or modified avenues to advance technician education. This is how we grew our ATE center and related efforts over the years. If we solved one problem or reduced a barrier for students, often another one popped up that also needed attention.  Since my first ATE grant had a national focus, I’ve always looked for patterns in challenges as well as strategies that work across many grantees nationwide. My goal has been to identify problems or barriers that are common in technician education that ATE grant funding could help solve.

“As solicitations have changed, I have used opportunities within the current solicitation to address needs, and I only pursue projects that I’m really excited about. Helping students and technician educators and addressing challenges they face in being successful has always been my ‘driver.’ The funding mechanism has just been an essential component that makes it possible to get the job done.

“The types of grants and levels of funding are useful in targeting and scoping a project. The funding structure helps keep you focused, taking a targeted versus shotgun approach in addressing challenges. The NSF grant proposal requirements help guide the development of a really well-planned project, and a strong evaluation component helps ensure that goals are solid and outcomes will be measurable and documented.”  

Second-year engineering technology students at Columbus State Community College learn in hands-on labs and at their paid work-study jobs with industry partners of the Next Generation Multi-Craft Manufacturing Support Technician project.

Second-year engineering technology students at Columbus State Community College learn in hands-on labs and at their paid work-study jobs with industry partners of the Next Generation Multi-Craft Manufacturing Support Technician project.

Changing the Campus Culture to Support Faculty Pursuit of Grants

When David Harrison became president of Columbus State Community College in 2010 it had no ATE grants and only a few grants from other sources. “What we did have wasn’t widely celebrated by our business office because it is more work for busy people,” he said during a phone interview.

Since he was the principal investigator of one of the ATE program’s first centers as a manufacturing instructor at Sinclair Community College in 1994, Harrison said he has encouraged faculty wherever he has worked to participate in the ATE program.

He dates the shift in Columbus State’s campus culture regarding grants to the college’s hiring of Shane Kirby as Grants Office director in 2013. The college recently added a fifth staff person to the grants office, which provides pre- and post-award support services to faculty. In August 2018, Columbus State had 10 active ATE grants. Altogether it had 78 active grants from government agencies, corporations, foundations, and other sources with a total value of $43 million.

What is the secret to Columbus State’s success with obtaining ATE grants and other external support?

DH: “Under Shane’s leadership [we] got one and then another, and started to build what I would call proactive infrastructure around making it easy for faculty to be involved in these programs. So that it wasn’t something that faculty had to do on their own, and off the side of their desk. But it was something the college not only supported but encouraged, and then success really led to success.

“With each subsequent grant we certainly learned within the construct of the grant and the discipline that it’s focused on. We certainly tried to learn administratively as a college in terms of what kind of infrastructure we needed to have in place both pre-award and post-award so that faculty could focus on doing the work and we as a college could learn from the work that they’re doing.” 

How has the culture change impacted faculty?

DH: “I think we’ve gotten better at allowing faculty to do what they’re really good at and do that from day one, because we’ve got the infrastructure and the administrative support and it’s become a repeatable process for the college. So they [faculty] can really focus on the outcomes of the grant as opposed to the administrative piece that sometimes bogs people down …”

 “The faculty that are PIs and who are moving forward on this they’ve got a fire in their belly to do right by students is really what it boils down to. We’ve got a structure in place now that makes it easier for them to do that. And that, in and of itself I think, is rewarding in that it allows them to focus on what they love and not be burdened by some of the administrative work. Now clearly through grant and other funding it does provide time. I mean really for many of our faculty the most valuable asset they have is time, and the ability for grant funding to allow them to teach less and really focus on building something for the future is something that draws our best faculty into it.”

How do individual ATE grants fit with the college’s strategic plan and the faculty teaching? 

DH:  “I remember Gerhard [Salinger, longtime co-lead program director of ATE] sitting in my office at Sinclair when he did an early site visit. We were talking about [a] kind of an evaluation plan. What I was trying to figure out: NSF was funding certain work in manufacturing for us but we were doing a lot of other work in manufacturing. Some of it grant funded and some of it was what our core organization was supposed to do. And I asked Gerhard ‘How do I segment NSF’s contribution?’ And he looked at me and said, ‘Count it all and call it leverage.’

“I’ve been using that line for 25 years because it’s beautiful, because it really is all the same work. And again I think the culture that we’ve developed here now at Columbus State where you’ve got a project, a grant-funded project, and certainly it’s got deliverables that are associated with that, but it is part of a bigger strategic framework that both gives you support and that ultimately gives you additional resources because we look now at every grant as how that can deliver more value than the funding associated with it. And that whole attitude goes back to the advice Gerhard gave me in ’94.”

What is your advice to other presidents regarding the ATE program?

DH: “I would urge them not to wait until they think they’re ready. This is the best source of venture capital in the technological space that I think you can have.

“If you don’t think you are ready as an institution, apply anyway because ATE is a great developmental partner. ATE doesn’t come back and say ‘you’re not going to get funded.’ They come back with a thorough review of your strengths and weaknesses. You know a lot of the grants that we’ve gotten we didn’t get the first time we submitted. 

“It’s a great continuous improvement process, and it really is a community nationally that we’re all kind of ‘in-this-together.’ So there’s a real spirit of collaboration across community colleges that strengthen all of our institutions. So the more committed minds we have to this the stronger the program is going to be nationally and the stronger each of our institutions is going to be.”

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