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 NSF values ATE innovations at annual conference 

By Madeline Patton
Community College Times
November 12, 2002
  
National Science Foundation leaders recently praised community college educators for their work developing innovative instructional practices and materials. They also emphasized the importance of the NSF-community college collaboration for the nation’s health.

“We are all partners in an enterprise that has far-reaching consequences for the prosperity, security and well-being of the nation. That is, preparing the 21st century workforce. We are on a journey whose roadbed enables society’s heavy traffic to flow with vigor and success,” NSF Deputy Director Joseph Bordogna said during the plenary session of the annual Advanced Technological Education (ATE) Conference.

“We are not only proud and privileged to be able to support your work, we hope to learn from you the kinds of things that will enable us to shift our own thinking, that make our portfolio more effective over time and to demonstrate to the nation that we are capable together of solving problems that no one even envisioned a decade ago, and which you are working on as we speak,” said Judith A. Ramaley, assistant director of the Education and Human Resources Directorate at the NSF.

“You have the NSF’s attention,” Bordogna told the 600 community college educators meeting on Oct. 24 at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington, D.C.

Most of those in attendance have been awarded ATE grants and shared information about their work during the three-day conference.

The NSF’s ATE program, created by congressional mandate, provides seed money and other support for community college educators to enhance technician training and to improve math and science instruction.

Since the first round of funding in 1994, 480 grants have been made and more than 220 grants are currently funded. The grants fall into two general categories: centers and projects.

The 22 Centers of Excellence focus on improving a discipline, such as information technology or manufacturing, in ways that can be replicated nationally.

National centers typically receive $5 million over four years and may receive lower levels of funding for additional years. Regional centers receive $3 million over four years, and resource centers receive $1.5 million over four years. 

Projects concentrate on specific aspects of technician training, or math and science instruction. Project grants average $400,000, and generally last two years.

So far, NSF has awarded $260 million in ATE grants. NSF program officers and reviewers are now evaluating 200 applications for $40 million in new and continuing grants that will be announced in the spring. For more information on the application process see www.ehr.nsf.gov.

Through collaborative relationships with industry leaders, university colleagues and secondary school educators, all ATE grant recipients are expected to generate positive changes in their professions and communities.
The enthusiastic exchange of information the ATE program generates is evident during the conference showcases where grant recipients not only describe their work, but seek to connect it with what others are doing.

“There’s a sense of community here that I’ve never seen before with other NSF [grant programs], and I’ve been involved with NSF projects for well over 30 years now,” Arlen Gullickson said during an interview. Gullickson, and his colleagues at the Western Michigan University Evaluation Center, are assessing the impact of the ATE program for NSF. Information about their analysis is available at www.wmich.edu/evalctr.ate.

During his plenary session speech, John D. Bransford, a leading researcher in cognitive science, humorously demonstrated how the background information or “inert knowledge” people carry with them affects what they notice and how they learn.  “There are no blank slates. We come at every situation with preconceptions,” he said.

Effective teachers assist learning by using activities, models and case studies that help break through students’ realities so they will understand when and how to apply new knowledge, he said. “The trick about expertise is when to do what,” he said, adding he finds students are more attentive during lectures if they have first been engaged in a problem-solving activity.

Bransford, who is co-director of the Learning Technology Center at Vanderbilt University, has worked for several years with Nashville State Technical Community College on an ATE grant that encourages the use of case studies in community college teaching. “I’m really a great fan of community colleges and a great fan of the NSF programs. I think both are just incredibly important for our nation,” he said.

His monograph How People Learn is available from the National Academy of Sciences, www.NAP.edu. Information on the Case Files project for engineering and technology students is at www.nscc.edu/casefiles.
Belle S. Wheelan, Virginia’s Secretary of Education, closed the three-day conference with a lively address that encouraged community college educators to reach out to K-12 teachers, students and parents.
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