LA JUNTA — Otero Junior College President Jim Rizzuto has announced that the college has been awarded two grants totaling $10.3 million through the United States Department of Education to further science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education. The grants began on October 1, 2011 and will continue for five years.
Both grants are through the Department’s Hispanic Serving Institutions STEM grant program, which awarded $100 million last month to colleges and universities throughout the United States. The purpose of the program is to increase the number of Hispanic and other low-income students attaining degrees in STEM fields and to develop model transfer and articulation agreements.
According to Rizzuto, OJC’s grants are each for a five-year period and include $4,326,532 for Success in STEM, a program that will allow the college to develop additional STEM courses and to update technology and equipment on campus. Plans for the grant funds include the creation of a Math and Science Learning Center that will be adjacent to the OJC Wheeler Library and include improvements to the college’s Student Success Center.
The second grant, for a total of $5,995,088, is a cooperative grant with Trinidad State Junior College and will enable the two community colleges, through “Semillas de STEM (Seeds of STEM) to work together to increase the number of students completing degree programs in STEM fields and, ultimately, transferring to four-year institutions. OJC’s portion of that grant will total about $3 million.
Dr. David Cockrell, associate vice president of instruction at OJC, will be the grant manager for the new STEM grants. According to Cockrell, the college has some specific projects in mind for the grants.
“High on our priority list will be the development of additional courses and programs of study in STEM fields, and in turn, increasing the number of students who choose to study within those programs. The grants will help us with program development, staffing, recruitment and retention,” explained Cockrell.
As new programs are developed, additional space will be required to help facilitate learning. At this time a $600,000 expansion of Wheeler Library is being planned to include a Math and Science Learning Center. The expansion will include the installation of equipment and technology that will help facilitate learning in such fields as life sciences, pre-engineering and computer programming. Upgrades to the Student Success Center, classrooms and laboratories are also planned.
Another key component of the grants includes more STEM-related outreach programs for area K-12 students.
“We plan to work hard finding today’s college-age students who want to pursue STEM careers; in addition, we need to start recruiting now for future students. The first place we will look is at our area K-12 schools,” said Cockrell.
“OJC already has a great reputation in the community for our outreach to K-12, with such programs as the Girls in the Middle Conference, Pi Day, Science Fair and STEM Camps. With this additional funding, the area K-12 school districts can expect to see continued support for those programs as well as new programs being developed to encourage K-12 students to explore studying careers in the STEM fields,” he said.
The grants will also assist with improving retention rates and assisting students with transferring into four-year institutions to pursue STEM careers.
As colleges across the nation struggle with retention rates, OJC is no exception. While ranked #2 for the highest retention rate for community colleges in Colorado, with a retention rate of 47 percent, the rate is still of great concern to the college’s administrators.
“This rate may seem good in comparison to other colleges in the state; however, we view it as a great concern and hope to put in place additional resources to help students succeed,” said Jim Rizzuto.
Some of those resources to be made available to students will include increased remediation services through additional tutoring, and creating a summer bridge program specifically geared to STEM courses.
From a transfer perspective, the college will hire a transfer advisor to work with students who plan to obtain a higher degree in a STEM field. The college will also continue working hard to develop new and expanded articulation agreements with four-year institutions.
According to Rizzuto, the college plans to hire five new positions to help meet the grants’ goals. In addition, up to $500,000 in new equipment and technology upgrades will be made on campus and a $600,000 capital construction investment will be made in Wheeler Library.
OJC’s five-year goals for these two grants include increasing the number of students enrolled in STEM fields by 15 percent; increasing freshman to sophomore retention rates for students enrolled in STEM programs by 20 percent for a total retention rate of 67 percent; increasing the graduation rate of STEM students by 15 percent; and increasing the number of STEM students who make a smooth transition to a four-year institution in STEM degrees of study by 10 percent.
“I am extremely excited about the possibilities these grants will offer us here at OJC. The goals are certainly obtainable and the results can only be positive for our students and our communities,” said Rizzuto.