In This Issue
Summer Bridge: Engineering Technology Education
July 1, 2017 Volume 47 Issue 2
NAE members Ron Latanision (Exponent,Inc.)and Katharine Frase(IBM, ret.). The committee met four times, commissioned a review of federal educational and occupational data, designed and fielded two surveys—of ET education programs and of employers of engineering talent and held a one-day information-gathering workshop. The committee’s report was released in February 2017.

Educational Pathways for Engineering Technicians: High Schools and Community/Technical Colleges

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Author: Daniel M. Hull and Mel Cossette

In 2007 the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine released the report Rising Above the Gathering Storm (NAS, NAE, and NRC 2007), which challenged educators and policymakers to consider the consequences for the United States of not maintaining its edge in technology and innovation. The report recommended rebuilding the US K–12 educational system in science and math and encouraging more students to pursue careers in science, math, and engineering.

Three years later the Academies followed up with Rising Above the Gathering Storm, Revisited: Rapidly Approaching Category 5 (NAS, NAE, and NRC 2010). This report expressed disappointment in the lack of progress toward solutions to interest and further develop K–12 students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

Since then significant national and state resources have been provided to improve STEM teaching and to attract more students to technical careers. In the past 5–7 years, for example, federally sponsored engineering technology (ET) initiatives have increasingly been funded through the Career and Technical Education division of the US Department of Education. Until recently, however, very few, if any, federal or private efforts encouraged or provided hands-on learning for students to pursue careers as engineering technicians.

The Need for Engineering Technicians

Corporate laboratories and federal programs that develop new technologies and applications—in defense, space, medicine, and manufacturing, among other fields—depend on technical teams of scientists, engineers, and technicians. The scientists explore and characterize the theories, the engineers design and test new equipment and processes, and the technicians put the equipment together, make it operate, and keep it working. Each has unique knowledge, talents, and abilities—and all are needed on the team. But too often there are not enough qualified technicians to complete a team. In addition, many technicians have only a high school education, which is inadequate for their assigned responsibilities.

The primary source of new technicians is associate’s degree programs at 2-year colleges. But student enrollment in most of these programs is low, which not only results in too few graduates entering the workplace but also poses the threat that the programs may be closed.

Critical shortages of engineering technicians are evident in many emerging technologies, such as optics and photonics (Illich et al. 2012). Over 800 new photonics technicians are needed each year, but the 35 US colleges with photonics programs are producing fewer than 400 new technicians (Illich et al. 2012). And although the National Center for Optics and Photonics Education (OP-TEC) has, since 2010, restored seven photonics programs that had been closed,  two others are being closed because of low enrollments.

Many potential technician students are not aware of interesting and rewarding careers as engineering technicians. They may also not know that US 2-year colleges offer relatively low tuition and strong opportunities for technician graduates to enter the workforce at annual starting salaries exceeding $50,000. Furthermore, two incorrect perceptions limit student enrollment in technician education:

  1. “Technicians are just ‘gofers’ who run errands and make coffee for the engineers and scientists.” The reality is that technicians are the technical “geniuses” of the labs and the masters of the equipment. An engineering manager needs well-prepared technicians as equal partners on the technical team with engineers and scientists: the engineers who design new equipment and processes often require technicians to make them work, improve them, and keep them working.
  2. “High school students who are not in the top 20 percent (i.e., among the achievers who are entering universities) are stupid and can’t understand and use math and science principles to work in technical fields.” The reality is that many students in the middle quartiles of scholastic achievement are excellent “applied learners” who can master the required math and science if the subjects and principles are taught in the context of how they are used and reinforced through hands-on learning experiences.

Efforts to Broaden the Engineering Technician Workforce

Financial resources for engineering technician education are strategically provided to 2-year colleges through the National Science Foundation (NSF) Advanced Technological Education (ATE) program. And several college technician programs are using their current students to assist in recruitment efforts (Hull et al. 2017). But stronger outreach measures are needed. The needs, strategies, and exemplary models for accomplishing these recruitment initiatives are outlined in Career Pathways for STEM Technicians (CPST) (Hull 2012).

Some successful strategies and programs for high school students, postsecondary students, and adults are described in the following sections.

Recruiting and Preparing High School Students

Most 2-year community and technical colleges conduct broad outreach events and distribute information about the college and its program offerings to interest students in specific technician careers. They present informational handouts and materials that describe the technical field and career opportunities, and create equipment exhibits and social media postings (Hull et al. 2017).

In addition, in cooperation with high school math, science, and technology teachers, the colleges create secondary/postsecondary courses that enable high school students to earn both high school and college credit for technical courses. The students gain confidence that the college program is achievable, increase their motivation to continue their education beyond high school, and reduce their tuition costs.

At the national level, Project Lead the Way (PLTW; https://www.pltw.org) provides curriculum models, course descriptions, teaching materials, and teacher training to attract and prepare high school students to take dual-credit courses leading to postsecondary studies in engineering fields. The primary success of PLTW has been to direct high school students toward BS engineering programs at nearby universities, but an alternative path has been created to prepare high school students for associate’s degree programs that can lead to careers as engineering technicians.

The rationale, strategies, and curriculum models for adapting the PLTW high school model for students interested in engineering technician careers are explained in CPST (Hull 2012). This resource presents detailed articulated curriculum models in eight engineering technician categories; tables 1 and 2 show dual-credit courses (shaded) in photonics and nanotechnology.

Table 1

Table 2

It should be noted that neither of these programs has the words “engineering technology” in the program title, which is characteristic of many 2-year programs in emerging technologies. For the recent NAE report Engineering Technology Education in the United States (Frase et al. 2017), the committee (and the surveys conducted for the study) focused only on programs with “engineering technology” in the title, thus excluding data for programs in emerging technologies. However, the committee recognized that, although many 2-year technician programs may not use the specific term, there are a number of similarities in the students’ math and science coursework and problem-solving approaches.

Postsecondary Internships

Until quite recently the workforce consisted mainly of senior technicians, with very few less experienced technicians in the pipeline. Moreover, for certain fields (e.g., materials science) uniqueness to the industry made recruitment for qualified technician candidates difficult.

A postsecondary internship program, for students who have completed a portion of their postsecondary education, can prepare qualified candidates with the basic skills, knowledge, and interest to work in a particular field by providing a structured experience in a specialized technical field. It can help support students financially as they progress through the academic program, and assist them in making professional contacts for future jobs.

This information is appealing to both current and prospective students because they see the possibilities for future employment (Hull et al. 2012). And participating employers secure the advantage of selecting the most qualified students to fill open positions.

With direct industry input, an internship program can be a “win-win” scenario for all partners, featuring low startup costs, positive corporate image, and a program that provides a pool of qualified laboratory technician candidates ready for hiring.

Criteria need to be established when working with an industry partner to set up an internship; for example,

  • Participating students must be actively enrolled in a technical program.
  • They must be in good standing in their academic program.
  • Student interns earn college credits toward their associate of applied science (AAS) degree.

A structured, academic program involves a variety of coursework, including general education (such as college composition and mathematics) and technical courses (such as Introduction to Materials Science, Introduction to Composites, and Strength of Materials).

A team representing the NSF/ATE National Resource Center for Materials Technology Education (MatEdU), the Boeing Company, and Edmonds Community College developed an internship program that supports the degree program, students, and industry. The team worked through various points: the existing need for  materials science technicians; goals of the internship program; benefits/return on investment; strategy for implementation; plan to completion; and internship format.

Recruiting and Preparing Adults

Four categories of adults should be considered when examining pathways to technician education programs at 2-year colleges.

Adults with No College Experience

Adults who did not attend college after completing high school may work in a low-skilled occupation or in a nontechnical field that has not required knowledge or skills in mathematics and/or science. They may learn about a technician career and become interested through exhibits and demonstrations at community events. College recruiters who exhibit and demonstrate at these events provide information about both technician careers and employers in their region who hire technicians. In addition, many 2-year colleges have career coaches who meet with interested applicants, provide information about the field, and explain the college requirements to enter and complete an associate’s degree.

Often, these adult applicants need remedial courses in math or science to prepare for the technical curriculum. To develop their interest and enthusiasm for the ET major, such courses may include a single-credit “technology overview.” When possible, these students are also invited to participate in “ET clubs” where they meet and are mentored by advanced students in their technology field.

Students at a 2-Year College Who Have Not Declared a Major

Over 50 percent of students attending a community or technical college do not declare a major during their first year. This lack of direction often results in a lack of motivation to complete required courses, resulting in high dropout rates.

To capture the interest of such students and provide information about careers in the selected field, faculty in engineering technician programs at some 2-year colleges assign their students to create technical equipment demonstrations that are then displayed in convenient campus locations, like the cafeteria or athletic field house. Further information and courses required for admission to the technician program are provided by the college career coach.

Working Adults Who Require More Education or Updated Knowledge and Skills

Because of the high demand in certain emerging technologies and the changing nature of technologies, workers may be reassigned to engineering technician positions and require education and retraining. If a reassigned employee has been a technician in a related field, only technical courses in the specialized area are required. If the person’s proficiency in required mathematics (algebra, trigonometry, statistics, etc.) is not adequate to understand the new technology, math courses or focused video tutorials are required.

A technician who has received education and training in an emerging field typically receives a certificate of completion for the specialization.

Returning Veterans Preparing for a New Career

In the past several years colleges have increased their outreach to military veterans who are returning to civilian life and need career preparation. They conduct open house events specifically for these veterans to learn about educational opportunities that will prepare them for careers as engineering technicians.

Many veterans have received specialized training to enable them to operate and maintain cutting-edge technical equipment, such as guidance and tracking systems, drones, digital control systems, and laser weapons. They not only are interested in continuing to work in these technical fields but also have useful knowledge, skills, and experience. Frequently, their military education/training and experience enable them to receive advanced standing in introductory math, science, and technical courses.

Veterans interested in pursuing an associate’s degree in a field of engineering technology may meet with the ET faculty and the college’s career coach to determine opportunities and requirements for admission.

Figure 1

An example of outreach material to interest returning veterans in a career as a photonics technician is shown in figure 1.

From Associate’s Degree Engineering Technician Programs to BS Engineering Programs

Good technicians are usually “applied learners” who can master the required math (e.g., algebra, trigonometry) and science required for them to understand the technical courses. They are typically not “abstract learners” who can easily master theoretical mathematics such as calculus (engineers who design equipment, systems, and processes are required to master calculus-based science as a prerequisite for advanced engineering courses).

Colleges occasionally attempt to link associate’s degree ET programs to BS engineering programs. This approach has at least two significant limitations:

  1. Associate’s degree ET programs do not require advanced math courses (such as calculus) or science courses (such as physics) that require advanced math. Completers of ET associate’s degree programs who wish to transfer to a BS engineering program will be required to complete the advanced math and the calculus-based physics courses before they can enroll in the engineering courses. For many technicians, this is like starting over in their educational preparation.
  2. If a college’s ET associate’s degree curriculum includes advanced, abstract mathematics and science, excellent candidates for engineering technicians will be excluded, because they are not typically abstract learners. These courses are not necessary in AS degree programs, because most technicians will not be working in design assignments where the advanced math and science are required.

Conclusion

Engineering technicians are a vital part of the US technical workforce. But K–12 schooling and 4-year higher education do not fully appreciate or support pathways to engineering technician associate’s degree programs. Consequently, many capable high school students who have not demonstrated proficiency in math and science—because they are applied learners—are denied the information and encouragement to enter AS degree programs in engineering technology. This has dual negative consequences: these students are deprived of the opportunity to enter rewarding careers as engineering technicians, and the technical workforce is deprived of the valuable contributions they can provide.

Educational and career pathways for engineering technicians need to be fully developed and used, not only for secondary school students but also for adults and returning veterans.

Acknowledgments

We thank Ms. Cameron H. Fletcher, managing editor of The Bridge, for her review and extensive assistance on the completion of this article. Her ability to achieve clarity while assisting the authors in making their key points is very much appreciated. We are grateful to the National Science Foundation Advanced Technological Education Directorate for funding the National Center for Optics and Photonics Technology (OP-TEC) and National Resource Center for Materials Technology Education (MatEdU) as well as its recognition and acknowledgment of the importance of this work.

References

Frase KG, Latanision RM, Pearson G, eds. 2017. Engineering Technology Education in the United States. Washington: National Academies Press.

Hull D. 2012. Career Pathways for STEM Technicians. Orlando: University of Central Florida. Available at https://www.optecstore.org/products/career-pathways-for- stem-technicians.

Hull D, Cossette M, Cox F. 2012. Chapter 12. In: Career Pathways for STEM Technicians. Hull D, ed. Orlando: University of Central Florida.

Hull D, Beasley G, Kepner G, McIntire D. 2017. Using Current Photonics Students to Recruit New Students. Waco: OP-TEC. Available at https://www.optecstore.org/products/using-current-photonics- students-to-recruit-new-students.

Illich P, Hull D, Ruggiere P. 2012. Industry Demand for Two-Year College Graduates in Optics and Photonics Technology: An Industry Survey of Current and Future Demand for Two-Year Degreed Photonics Technicians—Summary Report. Waco: OP-TEC/UCF. Available at www.op-tec.org/pdf/2012_Needs_Assessment_Summary_Report_ 100812.pdf.

NAS, NAE, and NRC [National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and National Research Council]. 2007. Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future. Washington: National Academies Press. Available at https://www.nap.edu/read/11463.

NAS, NAE, and NRC. 2010. Rising Above the Gathering Storm, Revisited: Rapidly Approaching Category 5. Washington: National Academies Press. Available at https://www.nap.edu/read/12999.

About the Author:Daniel Hull is executive director, NSF/ATE National Center for Optics and Photonics Technology (OP-TEC) in Waco, TX. Mel Cossette is executive director and principal investigator, NSF/ATE National Resource Center for Materials Technology Education (MatEdU) at Edmonds Community College in Lynnwood, WA.