Photonics and optics are globally significant technologies used in national defense, computing, and the medical field. Because industry partners in the region are research-driven firms that depend on highly-skilled technicians to remain competitive, Westchester Community College (WCC), a Minority and Hispanic Serving Institution in Valhalla, New York, has designed the Photonics and Laser Project (PAL-TEC) in response to increased regional demand for skilled technicians. Area employers anticipate a 35% increase in the number of technicians needed with knowledge and skills in photonics and optics and have made long-term commitments to the program. PAL-TEC will increase the number and quality of technicians by developing (1) a new educational pathway aligned with industry standards, (2) new teaching methods; and (3) an evidence-based, gender-inclusive recruitment and retention program. It has strong support from area industry partners that include IBM's Thomas J. Watson Research Center, Thermo Fisher Scientific, Bern Optics and Kent Optronics. PAL-TEC is a scalable model designed with evidence-based best practices from the NSF ATE community that can easily be adopted by other two-year colleges. The project will involve course development; professional development of faculty; development of gender-inclusive recruitment and retention plans and activities; and dissemination at national conferences and meetings of high school and college faculty and counselors. This project will establish a regional pathway to photonics careers and address the recruitment and retention of women and minorities, a long-standing challenge for the field of mechanical technology, and a growing demand for highly-skilled photonics technicians. It has the potential to significantly impact traditional enrollment patterns in mechanical technology programs at the college by introducing a new paradigm for increasing participation among women and minorities by focusing on the nature of these careers today. This project represents a strong partnership between industry, academia and high schools, addresses an unmet need in the Northeast region, and contributes to understanding how NSF ATE technical education resources can be readily adapted to meet emerging industry needs. A comprehensive evaluation will determine project effectiveness and impact.
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