Interdisciplinary team studying skills gap

In the Classroom: Kelly Norris Martin, associate professor of communication, teaches an undergraduate qualitative research methods class.

Amid the national discussion about skills gaps in filling STEM jobs, a trio of RIT researchers is diving into whether that gap exists in the optics and photonics industry in Rochester. Their research will help guide what changes need to take place in the classroom to better prepare students for entry-level jobs in those fields.

Applying Research to the Classroom

Benjamin Zwickl, assistant professor of physics; Kelly Norris Martin, associate professor of communication; and Anne Emerson Leak, post-doctoral researcher in science education, constitute an interdisciplinary team utilizing a nearly $400,000 Education and Human Resources Core Research grant from the National Science Foundation.

The acronym POWER aptly describes their effort: Photonics and Optics Workforce Education Research. The trio’s study focuses on four areas:

  • How employees use math, physics, and communication skills in the workplace.
  • How employers evaluate competency in these skills.
  • The differences in required training for Ph.D.-level academic researchers versus engineers and technicians in industry.
  • The ways that higher education and on-the-job training combine for STEM workforce development.

Zwickl noted that there’s an abundance of research on how professors can more effectively teach students in the classroom but not much research on how students apply their learning in entry-level jobs.

Zwickl, Martin, and Leak are getting multiple perspectives by interviewing not only employers and employees in industry but also graduate-level students and their advisers. The interviewees fill a variety of roles, from associate professor to Ph.D. student, and from technicians to engineers.

Viewpoint of Employees

A unique aspect of their research is talking directly to employees who are in their first jobs after graduation, as opposed to much of the current research that focuses on surveys with CEOs and managers about the skills needed for STEM jobs. “We’re trying to talk specifically with entry-level employees themselves about what (skills) are you using every day, what did you feel prepared with (when you started the job), and what do you wish you had had more training in” while a college student, Martin said.

Talking to employees offers a micro view of the day-to-day skills they use, as opposed to getting a macro view from a manager about the skills that are important to a company, Zwickl noted. That micro view is essential knowledge for faculty to be able to transform the undergraduate curriculum.

In terms of workforce readiness and the often talked about skills gaps, their research shows that a lot of companies have a wide variety of innovative on- the-job training programs to bridge those gaps, Zwickl said. The optics and photonics fields are interdisciplinary, and because most new employees arrive with a background in one area, such as physics or engineering, “companies are always going to have to do something to bridge the expertise that a student has now.”

Some employers were very happy with the technical skills and training that recent graduates had, and if there was a gap, the employers provided in-house training or continuing education opportunities, Martin noted.

Strong Communication Skills

One key focus of the research is on communication skills and what employees in the photonics and optics industries need to be successful. While managers may say that good communication skills are vital, they may not be screening job candidates specifically for those. For example, a hiring manager will scrutinize a job applicant’s college transcript to determine course work in technical skills but may not look for evidence of strong communication ability, Zwickl said.

While some hiring managers may require a job applicant to write a paper during the interview process or do a presentation, that’s not the norm, Martin said. Managers don’t often inquire about whether the applicant has taken classes in communication or demonstrated communication skills through extra-curricular activities such as clubs.

The same holds true for Ph.D. advisers who are screening students for graduate work, Zwickl said.

Strong communication skills tend to become more important when employees are being considered for a promotion or a supervisory role, Martin said. “As far as moving up in the company, it’s essential if you are going to go into management.”

Leak pointed out that in science classes, students use communication as a means to an end, such as producing a PowerPoint presentation to show results or writing a lab report, but teaching communication skills as an end in itself is not typically done.

An Impact on Science Education

About 40 percent of physics majors pursue a graduate degree, so the researchers are also interviewing faculty who are supervising graduate students in a research setting, with the idea being that the students are working as entry-level research scientists. “The things that could make a grad student really productive and creative in working with a researcher could be the same things that make an industry employee really innovative and productive,” Zwickl said.

The data the researchers are collecting will also be useful to the development of broader science education literature, tying into the new national Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) for K-12 students and helping to make science education relevant, Leak said.

One next step is for the researchers to do comparisons related to types of companies and size of companies and how their expectations for employees vary.

A small company may need an entry-level staffer to wear multiple hats, as opposed to a larger company having more narrowly defined job duties, Leak said.

Zwickl, Martin, and Leak are collaborating on a related initiative. They recently received a $98,000 AIM Photonics grant to lead a New York state workforce needs assessment study to determine the training needed to fill future jobs related to photonics integrated circuits. Similar research is taking place at other institutions around the country.

Also related to Zwickl and Martin’s work in Rochester is a collaboration between RIT and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The project is called EMPOWER—Exploring Multiple Postsecondary Opportunities through Workforce and Education Research. Zwickl, Martin, and post-doctoral researcher Susan Rothwell are studying how communication, teamwork, problem-solving, and self-directed learning are valued and learned in STEM fields in four cities—Denver, Houston, Seattle, and Raleigh, N.C. RIT received $650,000 from the National Science Foundation for the study.

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