Published: Sept. 29, 2022 By
students sit at a table together

A $10.9 million grant from the Office of Naval Research in the U.S. Department of Defense will support five Denver-metro community colleges and two universities in an initiative to increase the number of community college students who pursue engineering careers—particularly those who come from underrepresented populations.

Led by CU Boulder, the grant will develop a seamless, muti-year, year-round pathway for underrepresented students in the metro area to go from high school to community college to a four-year university to ultimately earn an engineering bachelor’s degree and enter the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) workforce. The supported pathway will include a summer bridge program for high school seniors transitioning to community college, intensive wrap-around academic and social support at the community college level, mentoring and transfer guidance at the university level, and paid research opportunities and internships.

The initial Denver-Metro Engineering Consortium (DMEC) includes CU Boulder, CU Denver, the Community Colleges of Aurora and Denver, as well as local industry partners, including Lockheed Martin. In three years, Front Range, Red Rocks and Arapahoe community colleges will join, expanding the consortium to include all five Denver-metro community colleges.

Nick Stites, lead on the grant and director of the Integrated Teaching and Learning Program at CU Boulder, said the grant will focus on removing barriers that prevent students—especially those from marginalized communities—from entering STEM careers.

“We have a vast number of open STEM positions in the nation's workforce, yet we don't have enough of our population earning STEM degrees to qualify for these positions,” said Stites. “Additionally, despite best efforts, we don't have nearly enough diversity among students entering STEM professions.”

The first cohort of students has already begun this fall at the Community College of Aurora, while recruitment at the high school level will begin in spring of 2023.

Growing a student support system in STEM

The work has gotten off the ground so quickly because it builds on the similar work of Janet Yowell, director of Strategic Community College STEM Initiatives for the College of Engineering and Applied Science and the DMEC project manager. Yowell is co-leading a National Science Foundation-funded INCLUDES Alliance grant in collaboration with Saddleback College in Mission Viejo, California. That project, in partnership with more than 30 community colleges and several four-year universities in six states, includes a framework for preparing students for entry into the STEM workforce that includes an accelerated sequence of math courses, wrap-around student support, professional skills development and career guidance.

The new DOD-funded consortium will also support the state’s workforce and economy, offering opportunities for current residents to launch and advance careers in-state, as Colorado’s science, engineering and technology-based job market continues to grow.

“In Colorado, we are one of the highest-educated states in the nation, but at the same time we don't have enough people to fill the STEM jobs in our state,” said Yowell.

To fill this gap, the program specifically targets students who are at the developmental math level—those who have not completed college-level math—which represents more than half of the students entering our nation’s community colleges. It supports them in becoming calculus-ready in one year, completing additional math, science and introductory engineering courses toward an associate degree, while gaining internship or research experience before then moving on to a four-year university to earn an engineering degree.

Some $2.9 million of the funding will be allocated directly to students in the program, the bulk of which will go to paid internships and stipends.

“That funding is essential for students who want to earn a degree but would have to work full-time during the summer. We will be providing them with a summer bridge stipend and paid internship opportunities so that they don't have to choose summer income over education,” said Yowell.

Other challenges for many students whom this grant is targeting—including underrepresented minority groups, women and military veterans—include feelings that STEM careers are inaccessible, difficulty navigating the transfer process and not knowing how to find an internship.

To address these concerns, the grant will fund a dedicated student support specialist at each community college to develop a cohort-based student community, which includes wrap-around student support services. The program will also give students access to career services at the four-year level, provide coaching on professional skills, and host presentations with defense-related contractors to spark their interest in STEM careers and the defense industry.

“We expect this project to make a significant impact on the opportunities that underrepresented students have to pursue a degree in engineering,” said Stites. “There is this whole population of diverse community college students who have talent and rich life experiences, but who often don’t pursue STEM careers. We want to provide pathways for those students into the field of engineering.”

Any opinions, findings and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Office of Naval Research or the National Science Foundation.