Studying Pathways to Tech Jobs

USF receives a NSF grant to support research looking at the effectiveness of STEM education in high schools and community colleges.

                                                                                                                                                        Photo credit: Aimee Blodgett | USF News

 

By Barbara Melendez

USF News

 

TAMPA, Fla. (Dec. 14, 2011) – The University of South Florida has received a nearly $1.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation to study a process that will help result in the creation of a highly trained workforce in engineering technology.

 

Assistant Professor Will Tyson is leading an interdisciplinary team from USF’s Departments ofSociology and Anthropology and the Florida Advanced Technological Education Center (FLATE) at Hillsborough Community College to examine student pathways from Tampa Bay area high school career academies through community college advanced technology programs to the local workforce – with an eye toward making improvements. 

 

“There is an urgent need for an educated technology workforce in the U.S. FLATE and our local community colleges are addressing that need,” said Tyson, a sociologist and principal investigator.

 

The NSF Advanced Technological Education program project is titled, "Successful Academic and Employment Pathways in Advanced Technologies."

 

There are eight active $1 million NSF grants at USF. This award is one of four in the College of Arts and Sciences, one of two in the social sciences and the only active $1 million NSF grant awarded to an assistant professor. The grant, the largest awarded to USF in 2011, is also one of only eight awarded to Florida universities by NSF.

 

The researchers will be integrating secondary data analysis of student-level longitudinal data from the Florida Department of Education PK-20 Education Data Warehouse along with state employment data with ethnographic case studies conducted at Tampa Bay area high schools, Hillsborough Community College, Polk State College, St. Petersburg College, the State College of Florida, and local businesses that employ technicians. 

 

“We are using longitudinal data to answer some basic questions,” said Tyson, an emerging expert in STEM education. “What are the academic and demographic backgrounds of students who enroll in advanced technology programs at community colleges out of high school? How are their educational and employment outcomes different from comparable students who enter the workforce or enroll in bachelor’s degree programs out of high school? How do these students benefit long-term from these degree programs?”

 

The team is also going to gather information from those individuals who represent the “real life” aspect of the data – to get the inside story. 

 

“Our study involves interviews and focus groups with high school students, teachers and administrators, and community college students, faculty and administrators, as well as with employers and employees from local businesses who hire graduates from engineering technology and associated AS degree programs,” Tyson said.

 

FLATE is a National Science Foundation Center of Excellence in high-technology manufacturing and focuses on best practices and resources that support Florida's manufacturing sectors. According to FLATE, local engineering technology programs are the first of their kind to focus on a set of core courses that cover introductory computer-aided drafting, electronics, instrumentation and testing, processes and materials, and quality as well as safety in alignment with the national Manufacturing Skill Standards Council (MSSC) Certified Production Technician certification.

 

In addition to increasing understanding of recruitment and pathways, the study will also help provide information to improve the education of engineering technicians. 

 

“We are looking for best practices that both increase the visibility of engineering technology programs at community colleges and help promote these programs to talented high school students. These programs are particularly designed for students who did not take calculus, yet are interested in using their algebra background to do applied work,” Tyson said. “When students complete these core courses and then receive a two-year degree in their field of specialization, they are prepared for good jobs in manufacturing and high-technology industries.”

 

Tyson believes these programs can help address racial and socioeconomic disparities in educational and employment outcomes. 

 

“My broader interest is in race and gender disparities in education. STEM fields make up one of the key areas in which both women and minorities are well behind their counterparts. Much of the research in this area examines traditional pathways from high school to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) BA degree programs at four-year universities. Very little research examines the role of community colleges in these pathways, both in terms of transfers and associates of science degree programs that emphasize the ‘T’ in STEM.“

 

He went on to say, “My research on Florida high schools and universities has found that Black and Hispanic students who take high-level high school science and math courses, that is, physics and calculus, are more likely than their white peers to earn STEM degrees. The problem is that Black and Hispanic students take these courses at a much lower rate than their peers. Advanced technology programs offer students who do not take calculus another pathway into the STEM workforce.” 

 

Tyson has written extensively on STEM education and is a co-principal investigator for another NSF grant, “On-Track for STEM Careers: Access to Rigorous and Relevant STEM Courses in Florida’s High Schools” with USF Anthropology Professor Kathryn Borman.

 

He was co-editor of Becoming an Engineer in Public Universities: Pathways for Women and Minorities with Borman and the late Rhoda Halperin. Tyson also recently published on models of engineering bachelor’s degree persistence in the Journal of Engineering Education, engineering student and faculty perspectives on off-campus employment in the Journal of College Student Retention, and on the experiences of tenured women faculty in science and engineering in the Journal of Women and Minorities in Sciences and Engineering. 

 

Barbara Melendez can be reached at 813-974-4563.