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NSF funding makes a difference at community colleges

NSF funding makes a difference at community colleges


Two years after the passage of the CHIPS and SCIENCE Act signaled the federal government’s commitment to expanding domestic research and innovation, community colleges have emerged as a key part of this plan.

Federal funding provided to the National Science Foundation (NSF) as a result of the landmark CHIPS and SCIENCE Act helps develop the technical workforce needed to support new scientific and medical advances.

According to an NSF description of the Regional Innovation Engines program outlined in CHIPS and the Science Act, 10 Regional Innovation Engines have received $15 million from NSF to date to support the development of diverse local coalitions of researchers, institutions, businesses and civil society to conduct research and development that engages people in the process of creating solutions with economic and societal impact.

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Growth in industry and scientific research all leads to jobs and product development. When you take all these factors into account, that's where America's community colleges come in, says Jee Hang Lee, president and CEO of the Association of Community College Trustees. “For example, Pfizer might develop a new vaccine. Once that vaccine is developed, and there's a surge in demand for that vaccine, who's the natural partner to develop the workforce to meet the growing demand for this product? That's where community colleges come in.”

One of the goals of North Carolina Forsyth Technical Community College is to prepare a skilled workforce to manufacture cutting-edge medical products in a quality-controlled environment. The college is one of several partners in the Piedmont Triad Regenerative Medicine Engine, a project aimed at developing and scaling groundbreaking clinical therapies. Other colleges include Wake Forest University School of Medicine, North Carolina Agricultural and Technical University, Winston-Salem State University, RegenMed Development Organization (ReMDO) and Axiom Space.

Twenty-two community college systems across the country are partners in 10 NSF innovation engines working on a variety of issues, including the Central Florida Semiconductor Innovation Engine, the Colorado-Wyoming Climate Resilience Engine and the Great Lakes Water Innovation Engine.

“This is truly a time of transformation and meaning for the community college sector, for NSF, and for our workforce development and emerging technology efforts,” said Shalyn Jyotishi, senior adviser for education, labor, and the future of work at the left-leaning think tank New America. Last week, the group hosted NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan for a public talk about the workforce impact of regional innovation engines.

“The role community colleges play in the engine is two-fold: upskilling and reskilling current workers in light of the new industries the engine will spur, and creating pathways for new workers and students to enter those emerging industries,” Jyotishi says.If you're interested in a career in the innovation economy, you might think community college isn't the place to go, but that's not true.

If Congress were to appropriate the full amount of funding allowed by the CHIPS and Science Acts, each engine could receive up to $160 million over the next decade, but Congress has underfunded the NSF for the past two years.

Earlier this week, a number of companies, including Cisco, IBM, Microsoft and SAP Software Solutions, joined Congress in submitting a letter urging Congress to fully fund the NSF.

“Since its inception, NSF has made significant investments in academic research and education, which has led to transformative innovations that fuel our nation's growth. In the face of rapidly evolving technologies and growing geopolitical risks, it is more important than ever that our nation make the investments we need in basic and applied research to advance America's economic competitiveness, strengthen our national security, and maintain our position as a global leader in technology,” the letter states.

It's unclear how much funding these engines will ultimately receive from the NSF, but the projects are already underway, ready to meet immediate and future workforce needs. While technical and factory jobs of the past few decades may not have required specialized training or certification, that's changing as technology advances across industries.

According to a recent report from Georgetown University's Center on the Education and Workforce, of the 18.5 million annual job openings projected nationwide by 2031, about 31 percent are expected to go to workers with an associate's degree, certificate or college credits but no degree. But to meet the projected worker demand, at least half of the credentials will need to be in fields different from those currently available in 283 of the 565 local labor markets the report examined.

Programs like the Regional Innovation Engine are part of the solution to reducing that gap.

Community colleges are not inferior

Some community colleges hope that by building programs to prepare students for high-demand fields, they can also change the public's perception that two-year colleges are a stepping stone to more rigorous, prestigious four-year institutions.

After First Lady Jill Biden announced the launch of the Piedmont Triad Regenerative Medicine Engine on the Forsyth campus in January, Forsyth Tech posted on X, “We are excited, ready and thrilled to show that community colleges are not inferior. An engine for equity and the economy.” #EndCCStigma #APlaceOfPromise

Forsyth Tech is in the process of purchasing specialized equipment essential for regenerative medicine, such as 3D bioprinters that can print new cells that can be used to regenerate human organs, and creating training programs in the technical aspects of regenerative medicine.

Community colleges excel when it comes to hands-on learning because they align with employer needs, said Russ Reed, executive director of the National Center for Biotechnology Workforce Programs at Forsyth Tech, noting that community college education emphasizes both technical and interpersonal skills.

The emphasis is on working in teams, following instructions, communicating with each other and being able to comply with regulations.




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