Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify the starting salary for Houston Community College students going through these programs is $114,000.

Houston Community College’s bachelor’s degree program in artificial intelligence and robotics is gaining momentum since the addition in August, and their students are getting noticed, said Samir Saber, dean of the Digital & Information Technology Center of Excellence.

Saber said HCC launched the department’s first degree in fall 2020 as an associate of applied science with 45 students and that the program grew “really quickly from there" with more than 320 students now. The associates program graduated its first class in 2023.

The bachelor's program is the first of its kind to be offered by a community college in the country, said Joe Fleishman, associate dean of the Digital & Information Technology Center of Excellence.

The conditions

Citing a shortage of job candidates with the necessary hands-on experience in the field of applied technologies, HCC staff said some of its AAS students who have yet to complete the program have already been hired. Officials said the average starting salary for graduates is $114,000 per year.

The HCC West Loop Campus, the hub for the bachelor’s program, has also hosted numerous visitors from industries such as energy, health and space, Saber said.

HCC recently hosted the Southern Association of Schools and Colleges Committee on Colleges for a site visit for both the bachelor's in health care management and the AI and robotics bachelor’s of applied technology.

The HCC presentation given to the accreditation body cited the following as a partial list of companies that have partnered with the programs:
  • ABB
  • Amazon Web Services
  • Chevron
  • Exxon Mobil
  • Google
  • Houston Methodist Hospitals
  • Intel
  • Microsoft
  • NOV
  • Texas Instruments
The backstory

Diane Brown, wife of program coordinator Raymond Brown, is a volunteer in the department as the industry liaison for the college to the business community and supports the AI and robotics programs through a nonprofit called X-Lab.

“So actually the story began with this lab. It was a space that we wanted for students to work on projects to innovate. So we had it as the innovation lab originally, and this is where we met Raymond and Diane ... and were interested in collaborating,” Saber said.

Utilizing the space and coming together with industry partners to give students a chance to work in a project environment has been critical to the rapid development and success of the programs thus far, Saber said.

“They're really proving the program works; they're really terrific students. They do a superior level of work. When the program started, no one was quite sure that AI could be taught at a community college. And so now, it's not only possible to teach, but they're really doing highly remarkable work,” Diane Brown said.

The outlook

The department highlighted the following student success stories:
  • Students have won industrywide awards for their work in the field.
  • Students are working on projects for NASA, the Library of Congress and Houston Methodist hospital system.
  • Students have created AI chat bots and a robot named Vanessa that can drive a toy car.
  • Students have created virtual and physical environments for AI and robotics interactive projects.
“And the idea is that [community colleges] can provide an AI-capable workforce at large enough scale to actually implement the AI tools that have been developed throughout our economy,” Raymond Brown said.

By contrast, Fleishman said industry partners are telling HCC that potential candidates from four-year institutions have accumulated more theoretical knowledge rather than the hands-on experience demonstrated by HCC students.

“What the industry has told us is that not all degrees are equal. ... They said, ‘We would prefer hiring your graduates because these individuals not only understand what's going on, but you can actually put them in front of something [and] they can touch it, they can do it, they can fix it,” Fleishman said.

The options

AI and robotics programs are offered around the west side of Houston at HCC locations, as previously reported.
  • Robotics: The HCC West Loop Campus is the primary location for the robotics program.
  • Robotics: Some courses are also offered at the Stafford and Katy campuses.
  • AI: HCC has an AI laboratory at the West Loop campus.
  • AI: Another lab is located at the Stafford campus.
  • AI: Two other labs are being built at Coleman College in the Texas Medical Center.