Now that North Hennepin Community College chemistry professor Eugenia Paulus is back from her front-row seat at the White House summit on two-year institutions, I thought I’d ask her what reforms the system needs in this day and age.
She should know her stuff. The award-winning instructor has been a consultant for the National Science Foundation on how to improve STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) education, as well as how to get underrepresented groups to go to college and study those subjects.
The snippets below are my notes, and not verbatim answers.
Q: What do community colleges need?
1. The curriculum must be dynamic.
We don’t know what tomorrow will bring. It will not be enough for faculty to teach students what lies between the pages of a book. Students have to be able to think for themselves … and be lifelong learners. There are faculty who have a dynamic curriculum in classes, but not everyone does, because it’s a lot of extra work for faculty.
2. We need inspired, empowered educators.
We need to network and be in contact with our K-12 colleagues as well as other faculty at higher academic institutions and professional schools. We have to be constantly in contact with employers. We need to be out there finding out what sort of classes they need.
3. We need a new set of the “Three Rs” — but this time four of them.
We need Rigor of academic content, Relevance to employment, Retention and Responsibility.
Rigor: Education is more than job-training. You can’t just train them for a job, because if that job disappears, you have a problem. You have to give them communication skills, collaborative skills, critical thinking skills, the ability to think and troubleshoot.
Relevance: At every point we must try to relate classroom material to everything else. And they have look at material from outside their fields. When I look at my organic chemistry class – and I have premeds and engineering students, while others get two-year degrees as chemical technicians — my advice to all of them: You hope to be something. Let’s have that as Option A. But let’s also have an option B.
Retention: As a community college we need to retain our students to keep them focused and involved so. I meet with them after class, for example, and act partly as a career counselor to keep them on track. I may come back from a trip with leads on jobs or who’s hiring — as I did from Washington with some leads on Homeland Security jobs.
Responsibility: They have to take responsibility for laying out a career path and completing it. Sometimes we have students who aren’t focused enough, or have a culture of entitlement. They thin, “My teacher needs to hold my hand and get me through this.” It’s partly home upbringing, it’s training. I think I see it it more often these days. Twelve years ago (when I started in the Minnesota state system), they seemed more proactive.