SPARC Program Wins Prestigious Bellwether Award
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SPARC Program Wins Prestigious Bellwether Award

Gaston College SPARC3 Program wins Prestigious 2016 Community College Bellwether Award

Gaston College was announced on January 26 as one of the winners of the 23rd annual Bellwether Awards at the annual policy summit of the 2016 Community College Futures Assembly in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. The summit showcased competitively-selected leading-edge programs in community college practice worthy of replicating.

Group Photo of Bellwether Recipients

(Left to right) Dr. Dale Campbell, Director of the Community College Leadership Consortium & Futures Assembly, Gaston College student Chelsey King, Gaston College student Madison Staves, James Smith, Chair, Gaston College Board of Trustees, Gaston College, Dr. Patricia Skinner, President of Gaston College, Gaston College student Janna Stover, Ashley Hagler, Program Coordinator and Biology Instructor, Gaston College, Heather Woodson, Dean of Arts and Sciences, Gaston College, Dr. Melissa Armstrong, Chair, Science and Mathematics and Chemistry Instructor, and Dr. Amy Fugate, president of the National Council of Instructional Administrators.

The Gaston College program, “It All Begins with a SPARC3: The Power of Inquiry and

Undergraduate Research at the Community College,” won in the Instructional Programs & Services (IPS) category. The IPS category recognizes programs or activities that have been designed and successfully implemented to foster or support teaching and learning in the community college. The SPARC3 (STEM Persistence and Retention through Curriculum, Cohort, and Centralization) initiative was developed to ignite student curiosity and prepare future Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) professionals for success in an evolving work environment.

The other 2016 Bellwether Award winners are Central Community College in Nebraska in the Planning, Governance, and Finance (PGF) category, and Alamo Colleges in Texas in the Workforce Development (WD) category.

In the January 26 announcement, Dale F. Campbell, Professor and Director of the Community Colleges Futures Assembly and Institute of Higher Education, said, “In more than 1,200 national community colleges this is one of the highest honors an institute can receive. The awards are similar to being selected by your peers, comparable to the Oscar or Emmy Award.”

“It All Begins with a SPARC3: The Power of Inquiry and Undergraduate Research at the Community College” was among 1,000 programs that were nominated for the 2016 Bellwether Award. Thirty finalists, 10 in each category, were selected from the 200 applications received. The application submitted by Gaston College described the SPARC3 initiative from its inception in 2009 and documented its goals, challenges and successes, including receiving a grant from the National Science Foundation to help build the program, the dramatic 197 percent increase in Gaston College’s Associate of Science program since the start of the SPARC3 initiative, and the College’s certification by the Partnership for Undergraduate Life Science Education—one of only two community colleges in the nation to have earned this certification.

Heather Woodson, Dean of the Gaston College Arts and Sciences division, spearheads the SPARC3initiative with Ashley Hagler, SPARC3 Director, and Dr. Melissa Armstrong, Science and Math Chair. The team submitted the application for the award and was notified in November 2015 that the program was a finalist. “By winning the award in our category,” said Woodson, “the SPARC3initiative has been recognized for its innovation and is considered a model to begin similar programs in other community colleges across the United States.”

Woodson, Hagler, Armstrong, Gaston College president Dr. Patricia Skinner, and Gaston College board of trustees chair, James Smith, along with three students, Janna Stover, Chelsey King, and Madison Staves, presented the SPARC3 program at the Community College Futures Assembly in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., on January 25. That evening, they and other finalists were honored at the Bellwether Finalists Awards reception and the award winners were announced the next day.

“We are just ecstatic to win the Bellwether Award,” said Dr. Patricia Skinner, president of Gaston College. “I was thrilled for us just to be selected among the 10 national finalists, but to actually win this prestigious award is a real honor. I am so very proud of all the faculty, staff and students who worked on the SPARC3 program for us achieve this award.”

“The SPARC3 initiative has had a profound positive effect on our campus,” said Woodson. “It has truly been an honor for our group to be recognized on the national stage, but the real winners are the students who benefit from this innovative initiative at Gaston College.”
Gaston College is one of only three N.C. community colleges to have won the Bellwether Award since the award’s inception in 1995. Wake Technical Community College won in 2014 in the PGF category, and Blue Ridge Community College won in 2004 in the IPS category. “Leaders of past winning programs have obtained ‘free agency’ status through the demonstrated results their programs have made,” said Campbell. “They also receive thousands of phone calls and hundreds of visits to help others replicate the success of their program in other community colleges and institutions.”

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