The Mother Lode and Unsung Heroes of America’s Workforce Development: NSF’s Advanced Technological Education Program

By George Lorenzo – Published May 24, 2020 in Workforce Monitor – Subscribe to the WFMonitor eNewsletter

If you look through the formidable research concerning workforce development from the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, published in 2017,  as well as from the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) National Science Board, published in 2019, you’ll see a recurring theme that has been going on for several decades: The U.S. must aggressively cultivate its Skilled Technical Workforce (STW).

Our country’s STW is made up mostly of workers in science and engineering (S&E) who have not earned a four-year degree. The growth and further development of the STW is even more prescient today, as we approach a post-pandemic economic recovery and monitor the development of the Biden-Harris American Jobs Plan

NSF’s largest investment to cultivate the STW is with the Advanced Technological Education (ATE) program, viewable online at ATE Central. NSF provides $60-$65 million annually in grants to America’s public undergraduate and secondary schools, and to the U.S. workforce. ATE “promotes innovation in workforce and technician preparation through a diverse set of national, regional, and local projects and centers based primarily at two-year institutions.” Since it was officially launched in 1993, ATE has invested $1.24 billion in 1,446 projects and 64 centers. Currently there are 352 active projects and 26 active centers.

When you look at the enormous amount of high-level education and skilled labor centers and projects that have come out of ATE since it started, it’s easy to see how this program is the mother lode of workforce development in the U.S., on numerous levels. However, if you ask the average working American on the street if they have ever heard of ATE, they would more than likely answer in the negative. Moreover, the mass media press really doesn’t cover ATE to any great extent. In short, the ATE program could easily be identified as America’s unsung heroes of workforce development.

Here at Workforce Monitor, we reached out to ATE to learn more about its dynamic centers and programs, all of which are vital to the future progress of our nation’s high-tech workforce. In this first article (with more to come) we talked with two ATE leaders, Virginia Celeste Carter, lead program director, and Rachael Bower, principal investigator. 

How It All Started
ATE got its start on October 23, 1992 with the passage of the Scientific and Advanced Technology Act (SAYTA), which required “the Director of the National Science Foundation to carry out a national advanced technician training program of awarding competitive grants to accredited associate-degree-granting colleges which can provide competency-based technical training in advanced-technology occupational fields.” The SAYTA’s authorized activities included: “(1) model instructional programs development; (2) faculty and instructor professional development; (3) partnerships between the private sector and associate-degree-granting colleges; (4) acquisition of state-of-the-art instrumentation; and (5) instructional materials development and dissemination.”   

“The language in SAYTA is still right on task,” Carter says. It defines America’s STW as rapidly driving technological change. “It can drive the need for upskilling, reskilling and for potential employees to have new skills. SAYTA was very forward-thinking, although they did not call them career pathways, which is what we would label them today.” 

“The ATE program has incredible longevity and its history is really interesting,” Bower adds.

Enter ATE Central, a massive portal/information hub on all things ATE past, present and future, published by the Internet Scout Research Group, an NSF grant-funded research and development center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Bower is co-director of Internet Scout along with Edward Almasy. 

As noted by the NSF National Science Board, in The Skilled Technical Workforce: Crafting America’s Science & Engineering Enterprise, “Technologically we are on the cusp of revolutions in data and artificial intelligence, developments that will continue to accelerate changes in the workplace and intensify our need for citizens who excel at using data, information, and technology in their work.” And the call is to “step up our game” because “there are indications that we, as a nation, are not doing enough.” 

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, in Building America’s Skilled Workforce reports a long list of findings and recommendations to step up, including “improving rates of successful completion of education and training opportunities with employer needs” and  creating “talent pipelines that link investments in workforce development with business strategy. . .” Overall that’s an apt, yet brief, description of ATE’s accomplishments (it does much more).

One of Many Innovative ATE Centers
Of course, we could not cover all of those accomplishments in one article, so we asked Carter and Bower which single center, in particular at this point in time, could be considered the most exciting and cutting-edge. They pointed to the National Center on Autonomous Technologies (NCAT), although every ATE center is unmistakably cutting-edge and exciting.

“NCAT has an amazing drone program,” Carter explains. “They have an amazing aircraft program for aircraft technicians, and they work with the United States Air Force. They also have an agricultural piece of that center as well as a marine slant. So, any place where autonomous vehicles will be and/or are being used – this is the center that covers that emerging area.” Bower adds that NCAT’s Director and Principal Investigator Jonathan Beck, who was employed in the Aerospace industry for more than 18 years, is “super sharp and doing an amazing job.”

NCAT, officially launched on July 1, 2019, is the first ATE center in autonomous technologies. it’s located at Northland Community & Technical College, a two-year public institution in Thief River Falls, Minnesota (population 8,790) that enrolls 3,220 students. NCAT’s mission is to “Lead the education of the nation’s Autonomous Technologies workforce through a concerted effort which will focus on expanding educational resources to address current workforce demands, develop career pathways, and broadly engage stakeholders from education, industry, government, and related ATE centers and projects. . .”

“Any place where autonomous vehicles will be and/or are being used – this [NCAT] is the center that covers that emerging area.”
                                                                                                                                         – V. Celeste Carter

Widespread Workforce Development Outreach
Although NCAT is based in a remote small town in the upper northwestern region of Minnesota, its reach stretches far and wide across the country through partnerships (also called sub-awardees) with other ATE centers and projects, including the Center for Advanced Automotive Technology (CAAT) in Warren, Michigan; the Center for Aviation and Automotive Technology Education (CA2VES) in Clemson, North Carolina; the National Geospatial Technology Center of Excellence (GEOTech) in Louisville, Kentucky; the Marine Advanced Technology Education Center (MATE) in Monterey, California; and the National Resource Center for Aerospace Technical Education (SpaceTEC) in Cocoa, Florida. 

Moreover, all of these centers have their own sub-awardee projects. For instance, NCAT partners with the Education for Technical Applications in Agriculture project, based in nearby Brainerd, Minnesota at Central Lakes College. This ATE project “aims to advance national interests in health, prosperity, and welfare by educating high school students in technologies used in modern farming equipment and operations. These technologies include geospatial technologies, robotics, electronics, sensors, and computer controls.”

“Most of the center’s people think very broadly about their area and involve other people within the ATE community that have similar programs,” Carter says, adding that there is a “cross-fertilization of all these different people in each institution with their own set of programs and industry partners all coming together and talking about where these fields are going.” There have also been instances when ATE center educators have spread their message internationally, such as when “people from GEOTech presented at a conference in Slovenia and then traveled through several countries in Europe, looking at how they were setting up their GPS [Global Positioning System] programs and then brought that knowledge back to their program and disseminated it out to their community.” 

There is a “cross-fertilization of all these different people in each institution with their own set of programs and industry partners all coming together and talking about where these fields are going.”
                                                                                                                                         – V. Celeste Carter

How to Apply for an ATE Grant
Not every community college has the needed infrastructure to apply for an ATE grant. Small community colleges, for instance, often don’t have an official grant-writing office or experienced grant writers on staff. That’s one important instance where ATE’s Mentor Connect comes into play. Its mission: “To help community colleges benefit from grant funding opportunities and continuous improvement through mentoring, faculty and leadership development, real-time technical assistance, and an online searchable database of NSF ATE-related resources.”

Mentor Connect’s Principal Investigator Elaine Craft “usually starts her presentation saying that crafting a really good proposal for the National Science Foundation is a little bit like having a baby. It’s going to take about nine months,” Carter says. “But after you have done it once, you get a pretty good idea of how the whole system works and what you need within your own institution to support faculty being innovative in this way.”

Resources and Impacts
There are numerous important resources accessible via the ATE Central online hub. Bower refers to the hub as “a massive database of information. We collect an awful lot of data that are useful to people, and we apply an awful lot of metadata around the records we create.” One important information record, among many, is the ATE EvaluATE program and website, which “promotes the goals of ATE projects and centers to strengthen the program’s evaluation knowledge base, expand the use of exemplary evaluation practices, and support the continuous improvement of technician education. The EvaluATE site provides an array of resources to help projects and centers develop and carry out successful evaluation plans.” 

Also see the ATE Impacts Book. The 2020-2021 edition groups ATE initiatives by discipline, summarizes the activities and accomplishments of 30 ATE centers and 28 projects, and “provides geographic location information to help connect educators, employers, and students with ATE initiatives that are underway in each state.”  The recent Impacts Book also notes that “in 2018 alone, 44,050 students were impacted by the lessons learned during [faculty] professional development programs offered by 135 ATE grantees” and “59 ATE initiatives taught 7,380 students business and entrepreneurial skills in 2018.” Additionally, ATE projects support diverse populations. “During 2018, 65 ATE projects were located at minority-serving institutions, 49 of them were federally designated Hispanic-serving institutions.” 

In short, ATE grantees are preparing “a new generation of highly skilled technicians for the advanced technology fields that drive the nation’s economy.”

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