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Community and technical colleges are crucial to training students for a growing number of jobs in the STEM field, said Sarah Tucker, chancellor of West Virginia’s Community and Technical College System.Tucker told members of the U.S. Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies on Wednesday morning about a partnership between BridgeValley Community and Technical College and Toyota, where students complete a two-year advanced manufacturing technician program that includes paid working experience during the program. 

“Upon successful completion of the program, students can begin working at Toyota for about $61,000 a year with benefits,” Tucker said. “For our students, this opportunity is life-changing. We have partnerships like this across the Mountain State and almost all are in STEM fields because, frankly, the fastest growing industries in West Virginia — manufacturing, IT, health care and, yes, even energy — are all STEM fields.

”Tucker outlined three things she believes STEM programs should have to be successful: a rigorous curriculum of math and science, some sort of paid-workplace program which allows students to earn money while in school, and an academic calendar which allows students to begin a degree program at multiple points in the year, not just the traditional fall semester start date.

“If you asked our students whether their mechatronics or electrical lineman program was a STEM program, they would probably tell you ‘no,’ ” Tucker said in a written testimony she submitted to the subcommittee. “Many of our students choose their major based on the availability of a job. They honestly do not care and probably do not even think about whether or not they are in a STEM major. They care about whether or not they will be employed when they graduate and what their wages will be.

”The BridgeValley partnership with Toyota launched in 2012 and allows students to go to classes two full days a week and work in Toyota’s plant three days a week. To help accommodate this program, BridgeValley built a special laboratory to mimic the equipment students will use at Toyota’s plant in Buffalo.

Tucker also highlighted in her written testimony a program at New River Community and Technical College which was made possible by the National Emergency Dislocated Worker Training Grants from the U.S. Department of Labor.

The school developed an electric distribution engineering technology program, which takes only 14 weeks to complete. Many former coal miners have enrolled in the program, according to Tucker. Local businesses like American Electrical Equipment, Pike Electric and Sowers Electric provide work-based learning opportunities for students in those programs.

Tucker was invited to testify before the committee by Sens. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. Both sit on the committee. Tucker was joined by Larry Plank, director of K-12 STEM education from Florida’s Hillsborough County Public Schools, Neil Lamb, vice president for educational outreach of HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology in Huntsville, Alabama, and Caroline King, chief policy and strategy officer at Washington STEM.

How can the federal government improve STEM education? Tucker had a few ideas.

She wants the appropriations committee to enhance several programs, including the National Emergency Dislocated Worker Training Grants, the Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Program (GEAR UP) and expand funding for the Pell Grant so that it can be offered year-round.

“I know our colleges change people’s lives, but I also know that change would not be possible without strong partnerships and support from people like you,” Tucker said.