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Begin Your STEM Career at Community College

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start your stem career at a community college

Considering a STEM career?

You might think about community college.

No, really.

Whether it’s by opening courses to high school students or making college more affordable, community colleges are significant players in the world of science, technology, engineering, and math, according to data compiled in government’s National Survey of Recent College Graduates.

Almost half (46 percent) of those earning bachelor’s or master’s degrees in science and engineering in 2010 said they had attended a community college, the survey says. That was particularly true for women (49 percent) and first-generation students (52 percent).

A program at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Ma., is now helping STEM transfer students make the move from a community college to the culture and academics at the four-year women’s college. It’s also shown coordinators how extra support might help any transfer student adjust to a new campus.

Sarah Bacon, an associate professor of biological sciences, was one of the people who applied for the $600,000 National Science Foundation grant to encourage STEM education. The original plan was to use the money to recruit community college STEM students to Mount Holyoke, but Bacon and fellow professor Becky Wai-Ling Packard, director of the school’s leadership center, realized transfer students were less likely than others to continue in STEM majors. So they figured out a support system that ranges from early advising to free lunch.

“I don’t think it does much for recruiting but it’s seen by the students who do transfer to study in STEM as very valuable once they get here,” Bacon says.

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Here’s how it works:

  • Incoming STEM transfers get discipline-specific advising the summer before they start classes at Mount Holyoke to prevent summer learning loss or what Bacon calls “summer melt.” Advisors help students pick classes so they finish within time constraints such as financial aid timelines. It really helps, Bacon says, to start a student-professor relationship and be able to say during that first week of classes, “Oh, it’s so good to see you in person.”

  • A required first semester class, “Science in the World,” for STEM transfers covers everything from class etiquette to how to read primary-source literature.

  • Extra internship support (Mount Holyoke guarantees every student at least one internship), helps students with things like application statements and finding a spot within their two-years at Mount Holyoke.

  • And there’s lunch, on Mondays, open to any STEM transfers who want to meet and chat among themselves and professors. Topics might include academics, or child care. “There’s this whole universe of concerns that I wouldn’t have known about,” says Bacon.

The grant money also goes toward scholarships for community college students.

Most of the transfer students go on to graduate, Bacon says. She thinks elements of the program could be lessons for any college. And she’s a big fan of community college students.

“One thing I’ve learned: how resourceful and great the students are coming from community college. There’s a richness in that population of women that you don’t necessarily see in traditional students. … All these women have had to figure out how to make their education work.”