Epilogue Project Finds ATE Centers’ Ideas Persist

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Rebecca Zarch’s research into the legacy of nine Advanced Technological Education centers has found that significant aspects of the centers’ work are continuing years after their National Science Foundation funding ended.

While looking for what has been sustained, Zarch is gaining insights into the leadership practices that led to successful operations and enduring impact.

“The biggest finding is nobody is doing this alone. The partnerships really make a difference and developing that network of partners—the broad-based support—is something that needs to be done intentionally and [to] start early,” Zarch said during a recent phone interview. She is principal investigator of the Epilogue Project (ATE Award #1821248) at the Sage Fox Group of Amherst, Massachusetts.  

The report scheduled for release in 2021 will focus on what has been sustained and will trace the processes that facilitated continuation of efforts. It will not be a comprehensive history or evaluation of the centers.  

“Sustainability here does not mean buildings and people. Sustainability is ideas,” explained Gerhard Salinger, who as co-principal investigator serves as project advisor. Salinger was a co-lead program director of the ATE program at the National Science Foundation from 1993 to 2012. He likens Zarch’s work to that of a historian who examines the intellectual output that flowed from a civilization rather than the physical structures that remain standing.

“We’re not about the bricks and mortar; we’re about the ideas....A lot of people in the program think that sustainability means that the people are still there after the money has left. And that doesn’t happen. It’s really the ideas. How did the world change because these people were there?” Salinger said.

Researcher Rebecca Zarch leads the ATE Epilogue project, a study of nine ATE centers.

Researcher Rebecca Zarch leads the ATE Epilogue project, a study of nine ATE centers.

Zarch elaborated on this point, explaining that in many instances, “ATE funding really acted as an accelerator between the industry and education communities. It allowed them to come together and focus on a piece of the work that was essential for everyone and gave them structure to that process.”

Here are several examples of what Zarch has found:

  • SpaceTEC’s curriculum and certification development helped it pivot to become a credentialing service for the aviation industry and military when NASA reoriented to unmanned space exploration and allowed commercial space operations.
  • Problem-based-learning case studies developed by the Center for Information Technology Education (CITE) are integral to ongoing K-16 educational efforts coordinated by Alignment Nashville in Tennessee. The Ford Next Generation Learning program also “draws heavily” on CITE’s work, Zarch said.
  • Collaborations that the Midwest Center for Information Technology (MCIT) established among educators at 10 community colleges and industry representatives in four states along the Missouri River continue to help one and two-person IT departments continue to run today. 
  • The North American Process Technology Alliance continues to update the PTEC curriculum developed by the Center for the Advancement of Process Technology (CAPT).  The industry association’s ongoing promotion of the curriculum as essential for educating technicians who make a positive impact on companies’ bottom lines has spread its use beyond the Gulf Coast. The apprenticeship-based program that educators and industry initially formalized when CAPT  existed in the early 2000s was used in 2018 to instruct 20,000 students in 23 states, Canada, the Virgin Islands, and China.  

Leadership Matters

Zarch has found that the skills of ATE center principal investigators “are not universal” across the grants. Sometimes the person who was the right person to start a center was not the right person to continue the effort. As in other enterprises, the leadership skills that matter varied depending upon the objective of the center at a particular time.

Nevertheless, Zarch has identified the following leader attributes as critical for the longevity of ATE centers’ initiatives:

  1. being able to champion the cause with the college administration;
  2. possessing the technical and educational expertise to garner trust across among college colleagues and employers;
  3. being willing to listen to advisory groups and to respond to evaluation data; and
  4. being able to develop and maintain partnerships.

In Zarch’s assessment being a champion involves making sure the center’s mission aligns with the college’s strategic plan and having the political savvy to know “when to fly under the radar.” Zarch pointed out that as executive director of Bio-Link from 1998 to 2018 Elaine Johnson kept the center going despite multiple personnel changes among the administration at the City College of San Francisco because she “was adept at knowing how to make the center resonate with the person at the highest level.”

“Many PIs [principal investigators] came to education with industry experience making them a natural bridge for the common purpose of preparing students to be workforce-ready,” Zarch noted in an email.

ATE center leaders’ responsiveness to advisory group recommendations and evaluation data was particularly striking to Zarch who read centers’ National Visiting Committee reports and then checked to see what leaders did to follow up. Over and over again she saw instances of centers successfully adjusting their efforts based on advisors’ guidance about industry and technology changes. For instance, the research-based collaboration that CITE led to focus on how people learn continues to influence the education ecosystem in Tennessee long after the Saturn Corporation that sparked the initiative has ceased to exist.

Center leaders’ partnerships skills may be the most critical factor in sustainability, according to Zarch. In her analysis, being able to develop and maintain partnerships means paying attention to relationships and nurturing them. She pointed out that Beverly Hilderbrand, who served as director and principal investigator of the Consortium for Alabama Regional Center for Automotive Manufacturing (CARCAM) from 2009 to 2017, excelled as a networker. Hilderbrand convened face-to-face group meetings to build trust among industry and education partners and then regularly communicated with individuals to make sure their needs were being met.

Zarch shared this portion of the MCIT section of her report as further evidence of the critical role of relationships in sustainability:

PIs Kandace Miller and Tom Pensabene both discussed the importance of a shared vision and values, noting that the “product is the deliverable everyone can buy into. The process is making sure everyone has a sense of value for why they're involved.” (Pensabene) It was this philosophy and consistent communication that allowed the community to form productively. PI Miller reports that the clear goals and metrics for accountability provided a structure in which faculty were trusted entirely to “do their job” of providing high quality education on their home campuses. She noted that “one of the great things about higher education is they give faculty a lot of freedom to do their own thing. Once you get a trusting relationship with a faculty member, they’ll figure it out and they’ll be your champion. By the end, they were all in and up for the good of the group. Creating faculty champions will break down barriers.”

 “The investment in relationships is something that continues to keep the programs relevant and robust,” Zarch said.   

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