Drake State Employs Broadband to Further STEM Opportunities

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Friday, September 16, 2022

Weekly Digest

Drake State Employs Broadband to Further STEM Opportunities

 You’re reading the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society’s Weekly Digest, a recap of the biggest (or most overlooked) broadband stories of the week. The digest is delivered via e-mail each Friday.

Round-Up for the Week of September 12-16, 2022

Grace Tepper

The educational opportunities that local community anchor institutions have to offer are transformational for students and their families. In Huntsville, Alabama, Drake State Community and Technical College is empowering students to train for and enter science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) careers. The historically black community college recently won a Connecting Minority Communities Pilot Program grant to help further its mission: offering student-first, flexible academic programs for all community members. Through bolstering the school's digital infrastructure and extending at-home internet access for previously unconnected students, Drake State is using federal broadband funding to increase its programs' range and potential for current and prospective students.

Drake State serves over 1,000 students local to Huntsville and Madison County, Alabama. A fully accredited college, Drake State offers two-year associate degrees and a variety of professional certifications. Drake State is adept at investing in its immediate community and offering hands-on STEM-oriented opportunities locally and beyond. However, broadband access is a barrier for many of its students.

The U.S. Census Bureau's American Communities Survey reports that in the census tracts directly surrounding Drake State, 25 or more percent of households report no internet access and/or no computer, smartphone or tablet. These are low-income communities consisting predominantly of families of color, according to federal and other data sources. The lack of internet access in the Drake State area is as high as 42 percent of households for the census tract to the east of the college.

“[Huntsville] is an affluent area with lots of opportunities, but then we have these pockets of high poverty communities that can see what’s out there but they can’t quite reach it," says Dr. Marina Kingsbury, Director of Grants and Sponsored Programs at Drake State. According to her, close to 70 percent of students are eligible for or receive some kind of federal assistance.

In 2019, USA Today reported the top 15 cities hiring the most tech workers. Huntsville was top three. Schools like Drake State are preparing to capitalize on this local opportunity for STEM students, but systemic inequities make this a challenge.

“Before [students] even think about an engineering career, they need to think and feel like they belong there," says Kingsbury. "And that’s what’s really being exclusionary for a lot of women and people of color in STEM.”

In the current educational climate, broadband internet access is a basic need, and students struggling with the digital divide are held back. During the height of COVID-19, Kingsbury said, Drake State had to administer some exams in the school parking lot for students who did not have sufficient internet at home. This was a reality for communities across the country struggling with the digital learning gap during the pandemic.

Drake State has a number of initiatives in progress to help connect more of its students and improve its digital infrastructure. Drake State is partnering with neighboring historically black university (HBCU) Alabama A&M to implement a single sign-on system, enabling students to access a number of applications and websites with one set of school credentials. Drake State is also mentoring school staff on how to use updated hardware and software to best serve students.

With Western Governors University (WGU)—an all-online university based in Millcreek, Utah—Drake State has developed a pathway to a four-year degree for its students online. Students can complete classes at the technical college which will directly transition into a bachelor's program with WGU. WGU is also helping to teach Drake State faculty about best practices in online teaching, including how to provide asynchronous programming and as much flexibility as possible for a variety of students' needs.

At Drake State, 71 percent of students are part-time and almost half are over the age of 25. That means many may have families and other responsibilities outside of school to juggle. Expanded online options are crucial for them. According to Kingsbury, the college is working on meeting adult learners "when they have the time to learn."

Because of all the work Drake State is doing to connect and train students in its community, the college was awarded $2.4 million through the National Telecommunications and Information Administration's (NTIA) Connecting Minority Communities Pilot Program. With this grant, the college intends to provide laptops, Wi-Fi routers, and broadband internet subscriptions to qualifying low-income students without access for the next two years. Not just the students will benefit from the college's resources, but also anyone in their families making use of the broadband connections. 

“Anything that can be done to sort of level the playing field is what we're trying to achieve, what we're working toward," said Kingsbury. "That's why we applied for these funds, because it's not just for the students, it's for the families."

With the Connecting Minority Communities grant, Drake State will streamline access to student support resources and online courses and democratize access to postsecondary education and careers in computer science information systems, cyber security, and cyber defense. The college is using some of the funding to help provide internet access for its mobile cyber-lab learning bus, where career coaches and instructors will travel to middle and high schools and conduct workforce development training with students. Drake State aims to reach out to more members of the community and get them interested in STEM.

“We are serious about carrying out this work because it’s important for our communities,” Kingsbury said.

Drake State is embedding the Connecting Minority Communities funding into everything it does. The grant will be used for Drake State's individual students, its educational programs, and its institutional partnerships. Through the Connecting Minority Communities program and a network of community anchor institutions, Drake State is extending online opportunities that meet students wherever they are in their educational journey. 


Quick Bits

Weekend Reads (resist tl;dr)

ICYMI from Benton

Upcoming Events

Sep 19––Spectrum Policy Symposium (NTIA)

Sep 20—Broadband Solutions and Recent Insights: What We’ve Learned This Year (LightBox)

Sep 20—Affordable Connectivity Program for broadband internet on rural and tribal land (Consumer Action)

Sep 22—40th Annual Parker Lecture & Awards Ceremony (United Church of Christ Media Justice Ministry)

Sep 22—Virtual Digital Skills Gap Symposium and Town Hall (FCC)

Sep 24—Capital Projects Fund Grant Plan Deadline (Department of Treasury)

Sep 24—ACP Sign Up Day (Black Churches 4 Digital Equity)

Sep 25-28—The Right Connection (CENIC)

Sep 26—Smart Cities Connect Conference & Expo (US Ignite)

Sep 26—From the Ground Up: Broadband Mapping By and For Communities (Benton Institute for Broadband & Society)

Sep 27—Internet For All: Wyoming Local Coordination Workshop (NTIA)

Sep 28—Local Coordination in NOFOs (NTIA)

Sep 29—September 2022 Open Federal Communications Commission Meeting

Sep 30—Enabling Middle Mile Broadband Infrastructure Program Applications Due



The Benton Institute for Broadband & Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring that all people in the U.S. have access to competitive, High-Performance Broadband regardless of where they live or who they are. We believe communication policy - rooted in the values of access, equity, and diversity - has the power to deliver new opportunities and strengthen communities.

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Benton Institute
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