The STEM Core: Moving Silicon Valley’s Existing Students onto Engineering and Computer Science Degree Pathways

By Dave Gruber, Gabe Hanzel-Sello and Caz Pereira

In his October 3rd blog post, John Melville of Collaborative Economics makes the point that Silicon Valley is not producing enough STEM Degree candidates.

One of the great sources for the next generation’s STEM Workforce are our regional community colleges.  The Bay Area has 23 community colleges, 11 in Silicon Valley alone.  State data suggests that 80% of students entering these colleges begin with remedial math and English courses.  Statewide experience suggests few of these students will pursue pathways needed to qualify for the kinds of jobs in engineering and computer science that are available now and in the near-future.  In fact, statewide data shows that of students entering community college at remedial levels, only 1% ever reach calculus proficiency- a foundation prerequisite for engineering and computer science degrees.  In addition to breaking through the calculus barrier, these students are faced with the same challenges of too many Silicon Valley residents; lack of STEM professional role models, lack of knowledge of STEM career and educational opportunities, and lack of the social, financial and academic support needed to complete a rigorous STEM education pathway. This pool of students, many of them the first in their family to go to college, reflects the diversity of California and, because they’re already living in Silicon Valley, represent an ideal solution to the regional need for a homegrown, diverse workforce.  Despite this current opportunity, few current efforts are aimed at encouraging and assisting these specific students to connect with the vast range of STEM job opportunities.

One exciting new initiative to realize the potential of this next generation local STEM workforce is the Silicon Valley Engineering Technology Pathways (SVETP); a $13 million initiative led by San Jose Evergreen Community College District and funded by the State of California Department of Education’s Career Pathways Trust.   SVETP supports a new strategy, “The STEM Core”, designed specifically to address the challenges of assisting remedial-level community colleges to pursue B.S. degree pathways in engineering, computer science, and related STEM fields.  In place of individual students pursuing remedial coursework, the STEM Core, now being implemented at 9 local community colleges, creates a cohort-based learning community of students with a common goal of achieving calculus readiness, workplace competency, and paid industry internships within one year. The STEM Core model differs from traditional community college education in the following critical ways; 1) Students are placed into a block-scheduled, cohort-based learning community, 2) In place of isolated, remedial math courses, students pursue an accelerated math sequence compressing 3-4 traditional math courses into one year. To engage students, coursework is contextualized to real-world engineering and computer science applications, 3)  Students gain access to engineering and computer science classes usually closed to them as well as industry speakers and field trips, 4) Students are assisted by a dedicated Student Support Specialist who helps them in adjusting to the rigors of community college education including development of study skills, career orientation, and dealing with the issues of transportation, family life, and health that so often derail community college students, and 5) In addition to the academic curriculum students have the opportunity for hands-on, paid summer internships at partner employer sites.

In pilot programs conducted at four colleges around California over the last four years, this approach has shown strong early promise in directing students on a STEM pathway.  65% of remedial students entering the program reached Calculus within one year (compared to 4% statewide over three years).  In addition, students have been successfully placed at over 200 internship opportunities provided by employers such as NASA Ames, Lawrence Livermore National Lab, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and Type A Machines.  A surprising number of students were able to convert their initial grant-funded internship into a company-sponsored part time job.   Most importantly, the STEM Core experience is leading a new pool of students to pursue the STEM degrees that are vital to their future and that of the larger Silicon Valley economy.


Dave Gruber, Gabe Hanzel-Sell and Caz Pereira are with Growth Sector.