Connecting the Dots

Harrisburg University Links STEM Education to Economic Needs

According to an analysis of 2016 data by New American Economy, STEM job postings in the United States outnumber unemployed STEM workers 13 to 1, indicating a critical deficit. But as the U.S. as a whole continues to struggle with this issue, some have embraced this challenge, choosing to use it to their advantage by addressing it at a regional level — much like the city of Harrisburg, Pa., has done.

[Above: Students at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology]

Founded in 2001 and opened in 2005, Harrisburg University of Science and Technology (HU) was created by community members in direct response to industry need for a more robust STEM workforce in the city and across the rest of the commonwealth. 

Eric Darr
Eric Darr

“In 2000, the Chamber of Commerce did a survey of businesses [to learn] what they would need in the next 100 years,” says HU President Eric Darr, PhD, who played a large role in the institution’s founding. “Out of that survey came the call for a university located in the city of Harrisburg [that would] focus on science and technology, because [the city was] struggling at that point to find technology workers.”

Darr credits much of HU’s founding to Harrisburg’s then mayor, Stephen Reed, who saw the importance of linking education to the business needs of the region. Recognizing the necessity to directly address industry demands by increasing educational opportunities in STEM, area government, business, and academic leaders worked together to assess gaps in the local STEM workforce. 

“We were going to focus just on science and technology programs,” says Darr, “but more and more, the observation was that there are large portions of the population in the U.S. that aren’t … represented in science and technology — specifically, women and [underrepresented groups].” With this information, HU tailored its mission to concentrate on increasing access to STEM careers for individuals historically underrepresented in those fields, making it the only STEM-focused higher education institution to have such a mission. 

The university’s campus in Harrisburg, Pa.
The university’s campus in Harrisburg, Pa.

With an initial enrollment of 113, HU now has more than 6,000 students and program offerings that consist of 11 bachelor’s degrees, nine master’s degrees, two doctorate degrees, and one graduate certificate. Fields of study range from biotechnology to data science. The university has since opened a second campus in Philadelphia and has plans to establish a third in Abu Dhabi in 2019.

Through engagement with churches, neighborhood groups, and high schools in Harrisburg, Philadelphia, and Baltimore, university representatives conduct outreach in underserved neighborhoods to introduce young people to the possibilities the STEM fields provide. HU also connects with area youth via Girl Scouts groups and by hosting annual Summer Exploration Camps that allow high school students to engage in hands-on activities, such as 3D printing and coding, while earning college credit. 

While these endeavors are part of HU’s recruitment efforts, Darr says that, more than anything else, he hopes they spark in these young people an interest in STEM.

“We’d love for them to come to HU, but if they go somewhere else and they enter a program in science and technology, that’s great [too],” he says. 

HU now boasts an enrollment that is 49 percent women and 49 percent students of color — the majority of whom are African American. The university also has a significant international student population — with 103 countries represented — which Darr says is largely achieved via domestically recruiting these individuals from other U.S. colleges and universities.  

HU students
HU students

With HU’s focus on expanding access to STEM education for underrepresented groups comes the need to put in place programs to support them. According to Darr, the university offers this in three key categories: financial, academic, and life.

From a financial standpoint, Darr says the university strives to ensure affordability. “We haven’t raised our tuition in five years, and I dare you to find another university that can say the same thing,” he says. “We control costs at every turn, and we provide scholarships to nearly 100 percent of our students to make it as financially possible for them to [attend].”

In addition to counseling, peer tutoring, and online self-help resources, academic support at HU is very individualized. The university pays significant attention to ensuring students get to the level where they need to be without costing them undue time and money. 

“It may be that a student, for whatever reason, never really learned how to deal with fractions. But the rest of algebra they know really well,” explains Darr. “[So we’ll have them] take a module on fractions, get that down, and then keep moving without having to repeat stuff they already know how to do. We spend a lot of time putting in place specific help around those smaller areas of math that we see students have trouble with.”

Life support focuses on introducing students, particularly those from underprivileged backgrounds, to professional development resources and best practices. The university offers a one-credit course that Darr says is designed to provide them with “a set of professional development life skills” that are tailored to their needs at each level of their educational journey.

“We get homeless students who come from Baltimore or Philadelphia, and they’re faced with the idea and the fear of having to go to a professional interview,” he says. “That’s a daunting thing for some people. So, we provide students all kinds of help around putting together their résumé or going to their first professional interview.”

Bili S. Mattes
Bili S. Mattes

All of these services coalesce to form what Bili S. Mattes, EdD, provost and chief academic officer, refers to as HU’s “community of support.”  

“It’s not just academic tutoring, for instance; it’s the community that you create in support of the students,” she says. “So, this includes mentoring from faculty and staff as well as fellow students. It includes making certain that basic needs are taken care of. It’s making certain that students who do need to [improve] their skills have the opportunity to do so without wasting time or money in their academic pursuit.”

For nearly eight years, Mattes and other HU staff have sought to provide additional support for women in science and technology through the STEM-UP Network. The initiative facilitates connections between and among women working in STEM as well as helps them improve their confidence, self-advocacy, and leadership skills in order to advance in their careers.

“Our purpose is to provide women in STEM with real-world strategies and relationships in support of their ability to flourish, prosper, and advance,” explains Mattes. “For women in STEM, we create a network of professionals. We have a very active and successful mentoring program as well as a leadership development program, we build opportunities for peer collaboration, we look very [closely] at … what challenges women face and how to overcome those, and we talk about communication and negotiation [skills].”

In a survey of STEM-UP Network participants, Mattes says 98 percent reported that it had a positive impact on their lives and careers. “Everything from the leadership development [to] the mentorship has given women the confidence to step up to leadership positions in their organizations,” she says. 

As an institution that links education with the business needs of the surrounding community, HU places great emphasis on experiential learning. Beyond gaining hands-on experience in the classroom, all students are required to complete at least two applied projects and an internship. 

“Within classes, the way teaching is designed and delivered, they get their hands dirty early, whether it’s in the science lab or working with programming code,” Mattes says. “We want to make sure that the students are applying what they learn early and often. And then the opportunity they have through the applied projects and internships is to take everything they’ve learned and apply it to real-world circumstances.”

She believes that the combination of relevant degree programs that help build high-demand skills, the hands-on experience gained from experiential projects, and the connections made through internships — which she says are especially helpful for women and people from underrepresented groups — provide students with a smooth transition into STEM careers. According to Mattes, 92 percent of HU undergraduates are either employed or enrolled in graduate school within six months of graduation.

“That’s the whole point, to create that connection and that circle,” she explains. “All the companies are looking for more and more [graduates] with STEM skills. If you look at the statistics, by this year — 2018 — the research shows that over 70 percent of all jobs will [require some] STEM-related skills.”

Mattes notes, however, that HU also emphasizes soft skills. It has eight core competencies — integrated across the curriculum — that address skills such as critical thinking, teamwork, ethical decision-making, and civic engagement. 

“STEM skills are foundational,” she says. “But employers are [also] looking for … people who can communicate, who can make good decisions, and who can reason quantitatively as well as make their case verbally.”

HU’s mission is turning out to be the win-win that its founders hoped for and perhaps a microcosmic solution to both the nationwide STEM laborer shortage and the lack of diversity in the fields. “Not only are employers getting workers, they’re getting a diverse group of workers,” Darr explains.

The university’s plans for the future include launching additional degree programs, opening the Abu Dhabi campus, and moving into healthcare. 

While Darr says HU’s specialized focus has at times limited its growth, he also believes it has helped make the university a pioneer in the effort to build a more robust STEM workforce — at least at the local level.

“We’re always going to lose students because we don’t have a criminal justice program or because we don’t have a journalism program, but we’re going to stay focused on why we were founded,” he says. “We can’t solve [the STEM worker shortage] nationally, … but in our dusty corner of the world, we’re trying to excite young people about science and technology.”●

Alexandra Vollman is the editor-in-chief of INSIGHT Into Diversity. This article was published in our September 2018 issue.