The University of Arkansas – Fort Smith has received nearly $2 million for two workforce development grants from the Arkansas Department of Higher Education to implement educational programs for two high-demand career fields: robotics and computer science.
Through the grants, the university will create career paths for local students to address the current and emerging need for high-skilled careers in the region’s workforce. The $2 million award was the most received by any educational institution in the state from the ADHE.
Both programs will allow students to earn a technical certificate in their respective fields of study, with the option to transition into an associate or bachelor’s degree program after earning the technical certificate credential.
A $987,000 grant will fund the placement of on-site, university-supervised robotics laboratories at three area school districts – Fort Smith Public Schools, Greenwood Public Schools, and Charleston Public Schools – in an effort to train an upcoming generation for an evolving manufacturing industry.
“With more than 25,000 residents in the greater Fort Smith region employed in manufacturing enterprises, it’s necessary that the University of Arkansas – Fort Smith proactively educates our upcoming generation for careers in advanced manufacturing to ensure the economic resiliency of the region,” said Dr. Paul B. Beran, UAFS chancellor.
The university worked closely with industry partners and local organizations including ABB, Pernod-Ricard, Walmart, Hickory Springs Manufacturing (HSM), Western Arkansas Planning and Development District and the Western Arkansas Workforce Development Board to identify the areas of need for the program. Additionally, employees from industry partners will serve as mentors to students participating in the coursework.
The second grant, totaling $984,000, will create a program to educate high school students in computer science, a field complementary to manufacturing.
“The evolution of the traditional manufacturing calls for a new skillset for our regional industries to remain competitive. Jobs in computer science fields are in high demand across multiple industry sectors like manufacturing, logistics, and retail, among others,” Beran said. “Additionally, UAFS and industry partners identified a lack of information technology skills among employees, especially in programming and networking. As it is expected to continue being a high growth area with demand for expertise, we saw the necessity of prioritizing it through a program funded by the workforce development grant.”
The program will teach courses to students at Fort Smith Public Schools, Alma Public Schools and Van Buren Public Schools in the areas of programming, networking, and operating systems, as well as introductory computer science courses. Industry partners collaborating with UAFS on the program include Walmart, the 188th Wing of the Arkansas Air National Guard, First National Bank, Arvest and Weldon, Williams, & Lick. Employees from these organizations will also serve as mentors to students participating in the program.
Dr. Ken Warden, Dean of the College of Applied Science and Technology, said the grants will help advance the university’s priority of creating a seamless educational pathway for high school students.
“Through this grant, along with other educational centers at the university like the Western Arkansas Technical Center, students can graduate high school with two years of college coursework completed,” Warden said. “Increasing educational attainment in Arkansas starts with decreasing students’ time to degree completion and their cost of earning a degree. These concurrent credit programs will accomplish both of these goals, and students participating in these two unique opportunities will have increased employability regionally and nationally. We are thankful for the vision and effort by the Arkansas Department of Higher Education for providing these grants to the university and the students we serve.”
The grants are implementation grants of the two programs, which were conceptualized following two planning grants the university received last October from the ADHE.