Orion turns 'college readiness' on its ear

May 25, 2013

by Joyce Helens, President, St. Cloud Technical & Community College
May 25, 2013

Last week, St. Cloud Technical & Community College launched phase two of the Orion Project, called the Orion Summit, an all-day event for 125 students from the St. Cloud and Foley school districts specifically designed to assist the 10th- and 11th-graders to succeed in science and math and consider themselves “college material.”

Why is this important?

Every day, employers in Central Minnesota discuss the skills gap and the importance of well-trained workers to populate good jobs available in the region. Even in an area with higher-than-average high school graduation rates, such as in St. Cloud, the healthy growth in manufacturing is being tested because of the lack of skilled workers.

St. Cloud Technical & Community College, an integral partner with business and industry in producing high-skilled workers, recognizes the gap exists, and we wanted to do something meaningful and measurable to solve this in our region. So we asked ourselves:

  • What groups of students haven’t we reached out to?
  • Who has been forgotten in the rush to attract the top high school graduates?
  • And how can we convince them to look at STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) technical professions, which are critical to communities and business but considered “blue collar” and overlooked?

We discussed this issue with employers, our partners in K-12, workforce centers and community organizations, and we discovered there were many high school students who were underperforming in science and math, then either not graduating or barely graduating high school.

College material?

These students believed they were not capable of understanding science and math. They believed they “were not college material.” This debilitating belief becomes a barrier to attaining a successful career and a satisfying, productive life.

Not long ago, we received an email regarding the White House interest in outstanding STEM high school students. Again, I thought what about those students not excelling in science and math but who have the capacity? What about the students who are underperforming or even failing? How can we reach out to them? How can we turn this around?

And then I heard the moving personal story of Adam Steltzner, a NASA engineer who led the Mars Science team in building the sky crane landing system. Although he struggled in classes in high school, failing geometry, and was told he was “not college material,” it was his curiosity about the stars, particularly the Orion constellation, which led him to enroll in classes at his local community college and changed his life. This is why our efforts are called the “Orion Project.”

Steltzner represents students we see every day. They have been told that they are “not college material” and they believe it. This is why Steltzner agreed to be our keynote speaker and participate in the summit as well as address our SCTCC graduates at the 2013 commencement.


This also is why a group of scientists from 3M Co., some of whom also had been told they were not college material, joined us for the summit with hands-on practical and interactive science experiences. They all wanted to let our high school and college students know that yes, they are college material and they can succeed and have fulfilling and exciting lives.

But we are not finished yet. Orion Summit participants are invited to the Orion Academy, phase three of the project.

The academy is a yearlong set of college activities on campus, the result of which will be a completed college application, SCTCC college credit, personal finance mastery, a savings account, computer laptop usage/ownership, and STEM mentor relationships from our college and business communities.

The Initiative Foundation and business investors have supported this pilot, knowing that the Orion Project, with measurable outcomes, can be one way to address the skills gap in our region and then be replicated within the state and then nationally.

We have been making a difference in our region for a long time, but SCTCC won’t rest. We promise you innovative and creative thinking and action to continue building a strong community of lifelong learners and workers not afraid to reach for the stars.

Kate Wallace
Posted in Higher Degree