Responding to a need for more workers trained in the sciences, three Maryland community colleges are banding together to tap what they consider overlooked resources - women, minorities and people with disabilities.
Officials of Howard Community, Anne Arundel Community and Montgomery colleges are sharing their best initiatives, looking for grants and preparing to increase their involvement in public schools so more of these students attend college interested in math, science and technology.
The community colleges' yearlong collaboration started shortly after HCC President Mary Ellen Duncan was appointed to a national group charged with studying the issue.
Today that group - the Commission on the Advancement of Women and Minorities in Science, Engineering and Technology Development - will release recommendations for recruiting and retaining more people underrepresented in such jobs.
The need is clear, commissioners said. According to statistics the group compiled, about 400,000 information technology jobs are vacant, a third of the high-tech positions in Silicon Valley went unfilled last year and companies are importing workers from overseas to meet demand.
Laurie Forcier, a researcher for the commission, said some scientists see the potential for a shortage of science and engineering workers as well.
If women, minorities and people with disabilities entered such jobs in proportion to their numbers - they represent more than two-thirds of the national work force - "this shortage would largely be eliminated," the commission's report states.
Among the commission's recommendations is to increase financial support for students transferring from community colleges to four-year institutions.
Duncan thinks that's a crucial step because community colleges have a disproportionately high percentage of women, minorities and disabled students.
But most scholarships are awarded to college freshmen, not transfer students, she said.
Likewise, most grants for programs designed to increase female or minority participation in math and science go to public schools or four-year colleges, said Zoe Irvin, executive director for research, planning and organizational development at HCC.
"Here, in the community colleges of America, you have this untapped group of students and no one is given the resources to implement these same great ideas here," she said.
Howard, Anne Arundel and Montgomery community colleges' presidents - all women - said they considered it their personal responsibility to take action.
"I was a student who was very good in math and science, and would have never thought of pursuing a career [in either] because that wasn't what girls did," said Montgomery College President Charlene Nunley. "I don't want that to happen today."
Among the steps the three colleges hope to take:
Offering help to public schools. HCC tried a long-distance statistics class at one local high school last semester - with students and the teacher in separate locations, connected by cameras and monitors - and officials hope to offer more advanced science and math classes to high-schoolers this way.
Intensifying professional development. The colleges will hold training sessions for their math and science faculty and also want to assist public school teachers.
Increasing science and technology experiences for pre-college-age students. Montgomery College is bringing girls to campus this summer for a computer camp.
Finding financial help. The colleges are working on grant applications and hope businesses will donate money for scholarships.
Martha A. Smith, head of Anne Arundel Community College, hopes that the commission's report will be helpful in these efforts.
"I think that will provide a powerful jump start," said Smith, who was the first female community college president in the state and holds an undergraduate degree in chemistry.
Last fall, 30 percent of HCC's students were minorities, 60 percent female and about 10 percent had disabilities.
At Montgomery College, about 54 percent of students were minorities, 57 percent were female and 4.8 percent reported having disabilities.
At Anne Arundel, 18 percent of students were minorities, 60 percent were female and 2.2 percent reported having disabilities.
"We have a certain responsibility," Duncan said. "We know that our population is very heavily female and minority, and we need to make sure they know the opportunities available to them."