Reviving the Manufacturing Sector, Starting in Middle School

Today’s Ohio teenagers were born into an era of manufacturing collapse. Between 2000 and 2010, the state lost more than 40 percent of its jobs in the sector, according to federal labor-market data. Families and communities were scarred, creating an indelible impression among many that manufacturing is a dead-end field. But that’s not the full story.

“Manufacturing is changing dramatically,” said Emily DeRocco, the education and workforce director of Lightweight Innovations for Tomorrow, or LIFT. “We want young people to understand that there are actually exciting jobs available.”

Her group is one of 14 “innovation institutes” aiming to bring government, industry, and academia together to support technology-related research and education in advanced-manufacturing fields such as clean energy, lightweight materials, and robotics. The groups all fall under the umbrella of Manufacturing USA, a national network of public-private research institutes created under the Obama administration.

Indeed, Ohio’s manufacturing economy has rebounded modestly in recent years, adding about 81,000 jobs since 2010. That means new career opportunities for today’s students—if they develop the necessary skills. Many of these new positions aren’t the rote or dangerous jobs typically associated with the sector, said Heather Sherman, an outreach worker at the Ohio STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) Learning Network, which partners with LIFT. Robots, not humans, now dominate work on the assembly line, Sherman said. Today’s students must be prepared to code, monitor, and repair them, a more demanding set of skills.
That’s why LIFT and a wide range of partners across the Midwest are investing in K-12 education, with a focus on developing students’ math, science, and technology knowledge, beginning in middle school.

One of the groups’ biggest efforts is a competition called MakerMinded. About 90 schools in Ohio and hundreds more in Michigan and Tennessee have joined in, taking students on field trips to local manufacturers and using MakerMinded’s online platform to find learning activities for classrooms and after-school clubs. Schools earn points by logging various activities, with state leaders earning public recognition and prizes such as programmable robots at the end of each school year.

The idea is to use a combination of academic learning, hands-on experience, and exposure to relevant industries to lay the groundwork for students to eventually pursue advanced-manufacturing careers. Even some skeptics of decades’ worth of warnings about a STEM worker shortage expressed enthusiasm about the group’s approach. “There is a lot to like about this kind of data-driven approach to connecting educational activities with the world of current and future careers,” said Michael S. Teitelbaum, a senior research associate at the labor and worklife program at Harvard University.

And why start in middle school? “That’s where students begin to have more opportunities to select courses,” said DeRocco of LIFT. “It’s also a place to capture their creative spirit and reintroduce them to fields that have changed significantly from the jobs their parents may have lost.”

Here’s how three Ohio middle schools are experiencing this year’s MakerMinded competition:

Woodward Park Middle School

Christopher Daniel teaches three classes not often associated with middle school: STEM, computer science, and automation and robotics. Each is offered as part of Woodward Park Middle’s association with Project Lead the Way, a national nonprofit that provides schools with curricula and training focused on hands-on learning that can be applied in the workplace.

“I believe my job is to get my students interested in STEM and have them follow up when they get to high school,” Daniel said. “I throw them in feet first, then let them explore.” A veteran of the U.S. Army who served in the Persian Gulf in the 1990s and then the National Guard before becoming a teacher, Daniels said he’s grateful to the U.S. Department of Defense for “thinking enough of middle schoolers to give them these opportunities.”

For his 8th graders, that means building their own machines, including designing and constructing their own racecars out of pasta and Lifesavers. Daniel’s 7th graders are coding their own apps. And students in his 6th grade STEM class are taking part in a “trash slider challenge,” in which the goal is to use recycled materials to build a vehicle that can transport a two-liter bottle of fluid down a ramp without spilling anything. Many of those activities have been tied to MakerMinded challenges, Daniels said.

He’s also used a number of the group’s instructional materials—for example, a video that shows how the processes students are using and the types of mechanisms they’re creating are actually applied in real advanced-manufacturing industries.

But even if they weren’t undertaken in the name of workforce preparation, such experiences would likely be worthwhile, said Michael Teitelbaum of Harvard’s labor and worklife program. “Advanced manufacturing is growing, so labor-market demand may be robust,” Teitelbaum said. “But knowledge in math, science, and technology is likely to benefit all students, no matter what career they pursue.”

Alliance Middle School

Polymers might not seem like the most exciting topic for a guest lecture at a middle school. But when STEM teacher Juliann Trevorrow brought in a University of Akron expert on the topic (basically covering any substance, such as plastics, made up by linking together smaller chemical units), her students were transfixed.

It helped that the guest brought in Shrinky Dinks, the popular 1980s toy that lets children mold and decorate large flexible plastic sheets, then bake them in an oven to shrink and harden. “There’s just a natural curiosity that comes from doing these kinds of hands-on [projects] and then looking back on the process, which middle school students don’t always get to do,” Trevorrow said.

The experience was just one of dozens of MakerMinded-eligible activities that Trevorrow and her students have done this year. And it was right in line with what the organizers of the competition had in mind. “At the end of the day, manufacturing is all about materials,” said Emily DeRocco of LIFT, the federally funded lightweight-materials innovation institute behind the competition.

In its research-and-development work with industry, LIFT focuses on such efforts as finding ways to reduce the weight of military airplanes or make naval ships stronger through new welding techniques. At schools such as Alliance, DeRocco said, LIFT hopes to help middle schoolers see that fun experiments requiring them to figure out the best resources to make something is actually the foundation for those kinds of high-paying advanced manufacturing jobs. “We are absolutely dedicated to bringing materials science back into the classroom,” she said.

Graham Middle School

St. Paris, Ohio, is a rural area surrounded by cornfields, with little local industry outside of farming. But that doesn’t mean that a wealth of high-tech career opportunities shouldn’t be available to his students, said Chad Lensman, the principal of the local middle school.

“We’re very intentional about planning for our kids’ future,” he said. “We have classes in engineering, design, aeronautics, medical science, and computer science.” For Graham Middle, the MakerMinded competition has been a way to expand and extend many of the activities that were already taking place, while also injecting an element of fun and earning some outside recognition.

Among the school’s recent efforts that earned points on MakerMinded’s online leader board: A field trip for 75 students to a nearby Honeywell plant, where students learned about manufacturing lights for various kinds of airplanes. Currently, Lensman’s focus is on one of MakerMinded’s most ambitious activities: designing an outdoor STEM classroom. The school was already planning on building a greenhouse and apiary, as well as cultivating a small working farm. The competition prompted school leaders to let students take the lead on making it happen.

“We said, ‘Here’s the land you have to work with, and here’s where the beehives and buildings will be located. You take care of the rest,’” said assistant principal Nick Guidera. At Graham Middle, the hope is that such efforts will not only provide rich learning experiences now, but also prepare students to succeed after K-12—whether that’s in the rapidly diversifying STEM workforce around Dayton, Ohio, about 45 minutes away, in college, or in the military. For officials in the statewide STEM learning network, which supports the MakerMinded competition, that’s exactly how the process should work. “The end goal may be advanced manufacturing,” said Heather Sherman, an outreach worker with the group. “But that line of thinking is what gets us there.”