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Staff from the National Convergence Technology Center (CTC) recently attended the National Science Foundation’s ATE Principal Investigators conference. This annual event each October offers an invaluable forum for ATE grantees from across the country to get together in person in Washington, DC to share best practices and plan future collaborations. This year, of course, the conference was held virtually for the first time ever, which allowed more of us to attend than is usually possible. The CTC staff spread out and attended as many different breakout sessions – and heard from as many different perspectives – as possible.

Below are highlights of our experience at the conference.

* Employers are no longer looking for new hires who are experts in just a single area. Companies appreciate a breadth of knowledge, such as students who have participated in more than one internship. As usual, there is an ongoing employer demand for those familiar “soft skills” – employees who can work well and collaborate in teams, solve problems, and analyze data.

* For now, there are few, if any, technician jobs in AI, though that may change in the next 12 months.

* Effective webinars should make attendees “take action” and engage (as in attendee polls or a request to enter an answer in the chat box). Interactivity is important. You may want to start the meeting 10 minutes early to allow for pre-webinar banter. It’s also a good idea to “change things up” every five to ten minutes, mixing in real-world case studies, polls, and videos. For this same reason, it helps to have more than one presenter.

* “Automation” is not a new concept. There was steam-driven automation in factories going back to the 1920s. What is new is the concept of enhancing computerized automation through the use of smart and autonomous systems that employ data analytics and machine learning. Collaborative robotics (intelligent robots that can self-learn and work alongside human workers) will be driven by 5G and cloud technology. The biggest demand at first will come from heavy construction.

* By 2022, each household with two teenaged children will have 50 IoT devices.

* As of 2018, the division of labor was 71% humans and 29% machine, which is projected to shift to 48% humans and 52% machine by 2025.

* At Michigan University where campus shuttles – confined to a set pathway – are autonomous, 86% of riders trust the system and feel safe.

* “The pace of change has never been this fast, yet it will never be this slow again.” This was from an address given by Justin Trudeau at the 2018 World Economic Forum.

* It can be a challenge to maintain a relationship with a local business when there’s employee turnover. A collaboration with the neighborhood community college isn’t always part of the handoff process when there are staffing changes, so educators often have to re-explain everything to the next contact. For this reason, always try to develop relationships with multiple people at a business. Don’t rely on a single point of contact. Even better, form a relationship with administrative staff people, who usually remain constant as executives come and go.

* Understand – and fulfill – the business’ needs when developing a relationship with a local employer. Don’t look at the situation solely as “what can my school get out of this.”

* Bucks County Community College launched an app that employed a gamified awards system (with a leaderboard) to help build usage. The app not only serves as an online platform to market campus events and workshops, but it also connects traditional academic performance with participation (and points) in experiential life skill learning modules to create an overall student report that can be shared with employers, on LinkedIn, or with transfer schools.

* Thinking “outside the box” is good, but students should beware going so far “outside the box” that they leave their team behind. Always stay connected to the group.

* For successful online teaching, make interactive discussions a required assignment. Those discussions create a classroom-like atmosphere, instill confidence in the students that they’re not alone, and cultivate peer relationships. For other best practices, the Association for Career and Technical Education created a “Planning for a COVID-19-Impacted School Year” guide, which can be found here.

* For those considering developing an ATE grant proposal, your project evaluator should be a part of the process from the very beginning. The evaluator should do more, in fact, than simply write the evaluation plan. The evaluator should be involved with the overall development of the grant goals and activities.

* Using Microsoft Teams with breakout rooms, one community college hosted a virtual networking event. The key was making the event extremely organized, timing the agenda down to the minute. Students – who were each given personalized “dance cards” with a schedule and embedded links – rotated through the virtual rooms to meet with employers. Each networking session lasted only five minutes, with a two-minute transition period between. Every virtual room had a host to facilitate the process, including strictly enforcing the time limits.

* One community college has their students record a professional-looking 60-second “elevator pitch” video that they link to on their resume. While this practice was developed in response to COVID-19, the school intends on making it a best practice going forward.

* To replicate in-person site visits, one community college recorded “behind the scenes” video at the employer site. That video was played during a scheduled virtual session, which also featured an employer representative in attendance to answer questions in real time.

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