Community colleges and the bioeconomy: it's time to step up and share

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Sandra Porter
What roles should community colleges play in training the bioeconomy workforce of the future? Send your answers to by Dec. 6th. One night towards the end of October, we happened to meet with someone who could tell us more. We asked him about a request for information (RFI) soliciting input on the bioeconomy, that some of us saw posted on the Federal Register web site. "What could information could we provide?," We asked (a little skeptically). "Does the Whitehouse really want our input on ways to stimulate the bioeconomy and build the bioscience workforce?" "Yes," he said. To paraphrase: The Whitehouse wants input from as many community college faculty as possible. The government wants information to better leverage our national investments in biological research and grow the jobs of the future. The RFI even addresses community colleges. The section on workforce development, in particular, point 10, asks:
(10) What roles should community colleges play in training the bioeconomy workforce of the future?
What might we tell them? And, why should we share this information? Here are some notes from our discussion: 1. Community colleges play a unrecognized role in post-baccalaureate education. Many students who attend community colleges have degrees from four-year institutions and universities. These students come to community college programs to learn job skills. Sometimes they're recent graduates from a four year institution. Sometimes these students have already been in the work force and wish to upgrade their training or learn new skills. Although, community college instructors are universally aware that we have large numbers of students with four-year degrees, it turns out that the role of community colleges in educating already-degreed students is not common knowledge. No one (except, perhaps, community college instructors) captures data about the number of students with degrees who attend community colleges, in any kind of systematic fashion. Four year colleges and Universities don't have these data and community colleges don't ask. We can help. If we have been collecting these data, the Whitehouse would like us to share this information. They want to learn more about the number of students at community colleges with bachelors degrees. I always survey my students, I have these data for the classes that I teach. I'm sure I'm not the only instructor who does this. Describing our role in post-baccalaureate education is also important in combating the myopic definition of success currently promoted by the Gates Foundation, and others, that students are not successful unless they get a degree or certificate. It's ludicrous to consider a student, with a bachelors degree who takes a few classes at a community college and gets a job as a failure because they didn't get an additional degree or transfer to a four year school. We need to address this narrow viewpoint and help these groups expand the definition of success by sharing our data and experiences with post-baccalaureate students. 2. Community college Biotechnology Education programs are experts in developing and maintaining innovative public-private partnerships. Many community college biotech programs work closely with their local industry and contribute to the bioeconomy in numerous ways. Some colleges have small business incubators on campus. Other colleges have agreements with biotech incubators in terms of internships and staffing. The colleges agree to equip students with the proper skills and the incubators agree to provide internships. Some colleges have even started their own contract research organizations and small non-profit businesses to assist local companies and provide internship opportunities for their students. Some colleges have been able to purchase costly high-tech equipment through grants from the National Science Foundation's Advanced Technology Education program. Not only do some colleges use the equipment to train their students, they allow small companies to use the equipment in off hours. Some colleges work very closely with their state trade organizations. A skilled workforce is an asset when communities are trying to lure business to their area. If a trade organization works with a college, that trade organization will be better prepared to answer questions about the number of skilled alumni, and the educational capacity and training facilities at the school. Many of us, in Bio-Link, know how entrepreneurial community college programs can be, but these activities are unknown outside of the biotech education community. If your college is engaged in these kinds of activities, or other related activities, the Whitehouse wants that information. They need to know that almost every community college biotech program, and certainly every Bio-Link program has an industry advisory board, and works closely with industry to ensure that graduates are learning the skills that they need. 3. We need to share the fact that our community colleges have programs that specifically assist veterans and that many of them end up in biotech and medical device education programs. No one can fix laboratory equipment like a vet. And all small biotech companies and college science labs have broken equipment that needs fixing. Why should we respond to the RFI and share what we know? As many of us know, the biggest contributor to improving the abilities of community colleges to educate students and provide them with job skills in bioscience has been the Advanced Technology Education program at the National Science Foundation. Recent news reports have mentioned that the National Science Foundation plans to cut its education budget by almost 4%. (Science magazine, Nov. 15, 2011) If we expect to be able to continue to educating students in advanced technology, and helping them get jobs, we need to let the world know what we do and share our ideas with the government. Send your answers to by Dec. 6th. Responses to the RFI, including the names of the authors and their institutional affiliations, will be posted at

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