The workshop’s fourth panel featured brief presentations from four innovators in postsecondary education, who discussed novel approaches for helping “non-traditional students” prepare for success in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) workforce, both outside of and inside traditional academic settings. The committee believed that it was important to understand the growing role and influence of online providers, computer “boot camps,” and even traditional programs that are offering non-traditional pathways to undergraduate and graduate degrees in STEM fields. Such entities are enrolling increasing numbers of student at all age levels—including 18- to 24-year-olds and adult learners. These presentations, said session moderator Mary Alice McCarthy, senior policy analyst at the New America Foundation, challenge the notion of what STEM education can be in the United States. The four panelists were Liz Simon, vice president for legal and external affairs at General Assembly; Adam Enbar, president of the Flatiron School; Ruan Pethiyagoda, chief strategy officer at Hack Reactor; and Maureen Grasso, dean of the Graduate School at North Carolina State University. After their presentations the four panelists responded to questions from McCarthy and the workshop participants.
General Assembly, explained Simon, is building the education company of the future, one delivering skills-based training in the most in-demand fields of today and across the spectrum of new economy skills, including business design, data analytics, user experience, web development, product management, and digital marketing. General Assembly, which is not accredited, offers short, practical, practitioner-led courses at 14 campuses around the world and online, and is focused on the return on investment
for students. “We do exist outside of the landscape of the traditional educational system,” said Simon, who added that “one of the reasons our model exists is it responds to the fact that people were educated but without [the necessary business-related] skills.” General Assembly graduates about 4,000 students per quarter, she added.
Enbar said the Flatiron School, founded 3 years ago, delivers immersive, intensive programs with courses running from 3 to 5 months designed to provide people with little or no background in software engineering with the skills to become immediately employable in full-time software engineering jobs in a variety of industries. Flatiron School, which also trains K-12 teachers to teach computer science at the high school level, focuses on diversity and economic mobility. “We have partnered with organizations such as Google and the city of New York to provide programs exclusively focused on underrepresented groups in technology, such as women and minorities without 4-year degrees,” said Enbar. Flatiron School graduates approximately 1,200 students a year.
Hack Reactor, which was also founded 3 years ago and also provides intensive, short-duration training in software engineering for people with no software engineering background, has evolved into an infrastructure company that owns and operates the systems supporting multiple schools, each having slightly different curricula and missions, explained Pethiyagoda. One such school is the Telegraph Academy in Oakland, California, which focuses on training underrepresented minorities for jobs in California’s high-demand industries. Its New York school, in contrast, only accepts 10 percent of the applicants, but it also offers programs for those who are not quite ready for Hack Reactor’s intensive courses and trains them for junior engineer positions that offer good salaries. Pethiyagoda said Hack Reactor’s corporate focus is to develop a better understanding of the challenges that traditional 2- and 4-year institutions face in providing skills-based training and apply its systems to support those institutions. Hack Reactor graduates some 1,200 students annually from its programs around the country, he added.
Grasso noted that North Carolina State University is different from the other three organizations represented on the panel in that it is a research- and STEM-intensive institution. “STEM is in our DNA, and innovation and entrepreneurship are what our degrees are about,” she said. Some 70 companies live and work on campus, offering students the ability to work and participate in internships on campus. Faculty work in partnership with industry employees, who also serve as adjunct faculty.
In 2012, Grasso had the opportunity to serve on the Pathways Through Graduate School and Into Careers Commission, jointly sponsored by the Council of Graduate Schools and the Educational Testing Service, which surveyed leaders in the corporate world to find out what their perception was about graduate education. Corporate leaders reported that graduate
schools were good at providing sound technical skills and training, but more work was needed on developing students’ employment success skills, such as project management, professional communication, entrepreneurship, conflict resolution, intercultural cooperation, leadership, teamwork and collaboration, and communicating with the public. Based on those findings, North Carolina State University has developed the Professional Science Master’s Program, an immersive internship program that features what Grasso called the most innovative curriculum that she has seen on her campus, one integrating training in both technical and employment success skills. She stressed this is not a “cookie-cutter model,” but one that heavily leverages peer-to-peer learning through teamwork and focuses on applying practical knowledge. “The students learn by working on real-world problems using data from industry and standardized tools employed by the industry today,” Grasso explained. “We augment this with instruction, one-to-one coaching that includes a writing coach, and continuous self-assessment and improvement.” The final piece of the program is a practicum in which students work on real-life problems and at the end of the program report their findings at the corporate headquarters of the company that sponsored a particular project. “When students complete this program, they receive higher salaries and bonuses that produce a return on investment of 20 months,” said Grasso.
Over 90 percent of the students who come to General Assembly have a bachelor’s degree or at least some college background, said Simon. In general, they fall into two groups. The first are career changers, those who have some experience in the workforce and want new skills to secure the career they want and who are willing to immerse themselves full-time in gaining those skills. Typically, these students are around 30 years old. The second are the part-timers who enroll in General Assembly’s night and weekend programs, and these are more likely to be incumbent workers who want to stay relevant in their current job, get a promotion, or explore the possibility of making a career change. There is close to a 50-50 gender breakdown, Simon noted, and while the students are ethnically and socioeconomically diverse, General Assembly has programs focused specifically on increasing diversity, including a scholarship program that has already produced 80 graduates.
Enbar explained that Flatiron School approaches the challenge of addressing the technology talent gap from two perspectives, one aimed at individuals with college degrees who can pay $15,000 for an intensive program to turn them into software engineers. “These people have a massive foundation of a college degree beneath them, and critical thinking skills,
and we can put them through this factory that turns out software engineers quickly,” said Enbar. Flatiron School takes a different approach to address diversity and economic mobility issues through a program run in partnership with New York City. This program takes people with no college degree who are 18 to 26 and come from low-income backgrounds, and puts them through the same kind of training over a 5-month period while focusing on employability and professional development skills. “Everything about how we run that program is different, starting with the screening criteria. In our regular $15,000 program we can require long application essays and first and second interviews. But when you are targeting people who have no idea how to apply for a position or put thought into an essay, you have to approach the process differently,” Enbar explained.
Hack Reactor’s intensive program students have college degrees, and those that apply skew toward young, white males, said Pethiyagoda. Applicants undergo a single interview focused on identifying students who are tenacious and eager to learn, and have problem-solving skills, aptitude, and consistency of reasoning. He noted that Oakland’s Telegraph Academy looks for the same traits in those who do not have college degrees and come from underrepresented minorities. There are some qualified students who cannot afford any program with a five-figure price tag, and Hack Reactor has been working to develop financing programs. “None of our programs are eligible for state or federal aid, and you cannot use college savings plans to pay for these kinds of programs,” explained Pethiyagoda.
Grasso said the students in the Professional Science Master’s Program have a college degree, though it may not be in data analytics, and may not even be a STEM degree, and the program receives more than 1,000 applications for approximately 100 slots. The most recent class was 41 percent female, and the students came from 18 countries of origin, with 85 percent being U.S. citizens or permanent residents. The age of the students ranged from 24 to 52, most are self-financed, and over half have a prior graduate degree. The interview process for acceptance in the program looks to build a cohort of students who can work together and identifies those points the students will have to work on in the self-assessment and self-improvement portion of the program, Grasso explained.
General Assembly has found that 99 percent of the students who graduate from its full-time immersive programs have a job in that field within 6 months of completing the program, said Simon, and graduates see a 25 to 30 percent increase in salary. Students in the Opportunity Fund program are experiencing similar results, but the sample size is still small, she added. Hack Reactor’s placement rates are also high, said Pethiyagoda, and though
the program is expensive, the return on investment is under a year given the salaries its graduates make. Flatiron School has similar outcomes for placement rates and salary increases, said Enbar.
Enbar noted that this niche of boot camps has exploded over the past few years, with 50 new schools launching within the past year. “This sector went from nothing to a multi-hundred-million dollar industry in a couple of years,” he said, “and as you would expect, that can attract some bad actors, so it is important to understand what is behind a school’s claims about outcomes.” One school, for example, advertises that its students have not graduated until they have a job, which means it automatically has a 100 percent placement rate for its graduates. What Flatiron School has done, said Enbar, is release an independently audited report of its performance and it is working with Hack Reactor and General Assembly to create standards and benchmarks for audited performance measures. “It is important as this industry matures to set standards for transparency,” he noted.
As far as whether these programs are delivering the right kind of skills, Pethiyagoda said that the only way to judge that is by knowing if companies are employing their graduates and how successful they are in subsequent years. That the graduates of all three of these schools are finding high-paying jobs argues that these programs are delivering on their promises, he said.
General Assembly offers a great breadth of programs that focus on technology, but not just programming and software engineering, said Simon. She noted that a study General Assembly conducted with Burning Glass Technologies (Burning Glass Technologies and General Assembly, 2015) identified a new type of job they called a hybrid job, one combining some sort of technical and business skills and that can be accessible to people without a technical degree. Examples of hybrid jobs include digital marketing and mobile developing, jobs that have risen 350 percent in number in just the last year, said Simon. “Those are jobs that if you break down the skills, it is not just a hard technical skill that you need.” She said while there is a technical component in all of General Assembly’s curricula, they also include the soft skills required for these hybrid jobs.
Enbar agreed these programs do not have to be about programming, but the key is to develop skills to fill a talent gap and to do so in a way businesses can evaluate. “If you are looking at a person with a degree from Princeton, you are going to interview that person, but how do you evaluate the graduates from our schools?” asked Enbar. Fortunately, in the software world there is a website called GitHub, a place where software engineers
can store the code they write and where prospective employers can review that code and evaluate an engineer’s skills. “As employers realize what this kind of transparency makes possible, we’re seeing more reception to the people who come out of our programs,” said Enbar.
Pethiyagoda said the information technology world has been receptive to this kind of program because of the extreme shortage of qualified job applicants and because of sites such as GitHub that enable them to judge the skills of the graduates of these alternative approaches to skill building. “I don’t think the rest of STEM is there yet. You still have to have the right degree to get the best jobs in most cases, but that is only going to last until other fields start seeing a reduction in the number of graduates or their needs outgrow the number of graduates,” predicted Pethiyagoda.
Roy Swift, from Workcred, noted the military is a prime example of how immersion-type education is done on a daily basis in a wide range of disciplines. He recounted, for example, how he could not teach at the Army’s Academy of Health Sciences until he had completed a 6-week immersion course on teaching and demonstrated teaching proficiency. “We forget about the military model, but it does work,” said Swift.
McCarthy asked the panelists about the role the federal government, and the National Science Foundation (NSF) specifically, can play to create alternative pathways in a way that does not end up with the situation today where students take on a large amount of debt for an education that cannot get them a job that pays well enough to service that debt. Simon suggested the missing elements are equity and access, and the federal government can play the same role in education that it plays in the workforce in general. What she and her colleagues in this alternative pathway sector worry about, said Simon, “is having the doors flung wide open with respect to Title IV. We have seen how federal money going into the for-profit world can be disastrous.” She encouraged the federal government to think creatively about how to use the platforms it has and how accreditation works, particularly regarding outcomes-based evaluations. “We need to think about alternative payment models, perhaps tax incentives to help employers pay for this kind of training and bolstering the balance sheet of private lenders,” Simon suggested. The federal government might also consider increasing funding for workforce development, she added.
Grasso said she would like NSF to provide opportunities to study how these immersion models can be extended successfully to other areas of STEM and to help prepare future faculty through programs that connect teachers and future teachers with industry. Pethiyagoda seconded this idea, saying the lowest hanging fruit would be to share some of the pedagogical
lessons learned from these programs. Simon suggested NSF might be able to bring together coalitions of employers to work on curriculum development for immersive STEM education.
Grasso then noted that administrators at educational institutions can encourage and build relationships, but the disciplines need to get behind these efforts. “Students need to be out of the laboratory, but faculty have not bought into this idea yet,” said Grasso. One suggestion she had would be to include provisions in NSF grants that would make faculty accountable for the skills development that industry needs. NSF could also carve out a part of every research grant that would go directly to the graduate school, which would then offer these kinds of programs and skills training.
Christine Ortiz, from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), said she believes there is a disconnect between developing skills and forming a foundation of knowledge, with the latter taking much longer than the former. “If you look at the STEM workforce, some of the greatest challenges require extensive expertise,” said Ortiz. For example, she can train someone in a month in how to use a three-dimensional printer, but one of the big challenges in this new field is creating a true multimaterial printer. Meeting that challenge requires a foundation of expertise in material science, molecular modeling, and other disciplines. “The STEM workforce needs people who have developed a full understanding of a domain of knowledge beyond being able to apply a skill,” said Ortiz. “Skills in many cases refer back to selective portions of a network of knowledge that is built up over a long period of time.”
Pethiyagoda agreed with Ortiz and said Hack Reactor is conscious of that difference. “It is easy to look at a job requirement and decide you can teach the skills needed for that particular job,” said Pethiyagoda. Hack Reactor, in fact, stops teaching skills 5 weeks into a 12-week program, with the remaining time spent creating experiences and developing the student’s mindset to succeed beyond those skills. As an example, students are frequently switched among multiple projects because that is the way the work world works. The goal, he added, is for graduates to come back and say the job is easier than school because that means they have had experiences beyond just skills development. Enbar agreed with Ortiz as well, but noted that for the 90 percent of Americans who just want a better job and to be part of the middle class, there are alternatives to spending 4 years at MIT. “We are not talking about the people who are inventing the new technologies and need that MIT education,” said Enbar. “We are talking about the people who make sure your credit card works when you buy something at the grocery store.”
Dale Allen, from Quinsigamond Community College in Worcester, Massachusetts, said in Massachusetts, community colleges will work with industry partners who come to them with a need to fill positions and a
curriculum in hand to train students for those jobs. With that model in mind, he asked the panelists if any of them would partner with a community college to deploy their curricula and provide technical assistance and faculty training. Simon replied that she and her colleagues at General Assembly have had many discussions with community colleges over the past year to do just that and would be happy to have the conversation with Allen. Pethiyagoda said Hack Reactor is in fact focusing on how to build a system for deployment anywhere and toward that end has started a remote-immersion model. “We provide the curriculum, you provide the big room, the Internet connection, and the coffee,” he said. Local staff can take over the nontechnical skills portion of the curriculum if desired, and Hack Reactor faculty can teach the rest of the program. Early results, he added, show this approach producing similar outcomes to the in-house program.
To close this panel session, McCarthy highlighted two things she found interesting. The first was the failure of traditional credentials to reflect the value of these alternative pathways and the availability of venues such as GitHub to enable employers to evaluate potential employees regardless of their formal credentials. This new model opens a space for a new type of provider, she said. “This is something to think about for federal investment and federal policy and how it relates to the credentialing space,” said McCarthy. The second thing she found interesting was the research opportunity to combine what is known about cognitive processes and learning with the interesting pedagogical lessons from these immersive programs to develop new ways of solving training problems.