HomeEducational StagesInternshipOp-Ed: STEM Education Needs More Shop Floors

Op-Ed: STEM Education Needs More Shop Floors


When John Walsh started his first year at Northern Michigan University, he had his heart set on graduating with the perfect set of skills to become a mechanical engineer. But as he investigated the many fields associated with that career choice, Walsh, now 23, was struck by the demand for workers in another industry.

“Once I got to school I saw the need for new jobs in manufacturing,” he says. “There’s a real shortage right now, with all the baby boomers retiring and all that.”

He started taking classes for CNC, or computer numerical control, skills on the side, rounding out his mechanical engineering curricula with the know-how that would help him fabricate the very products he’d prototyped with computers and notepads. What really kick-started his interest in expanding his skills, however, was a new program he came across called Invent@NMU.

The program pairs students from multiple fields with professional mentors to design and manufacture prototypes for real-life clients. Walsh was assigned to a project that paired him with other mechanical engineers, industrial designers, graphic designers, business majors and photography students. They worked for weeks to draft a prototype and product launch plan for a local inventor before sending the prototype to a CNC welding class hosted within the university, where 16 students manufactured 50 copies.

That product, called the Tinknocker Kit, is now pending a patent, and garnering excitement from a few potential investors. As for Walsh, he says his two years working on this and other projects with Invent@NMU are why he just scored his first full-time job as a manufacturing engineer for Stolle Machinery in Ohio.

“Internships are very limited on their own, at least for mechanical engineering, and it’s hard [for students] to get real word experience before getting out there,” Walsh says. To him, Invent@NMU “achieved an experience for the students that’s hard for students to get.”

Over the next decade, an estimated 2 million manufacturing jobs in the U.S. will go unfilled. A 2014 study by Deloitte reports that the manufacturing skills gap will drive this deficit. According to the same study, about 70 percent of manufacturing CEOs say their workforce currently lacks technology, computer, basic technical and problem solving skills, while 78 percent said these shortcomings will hamper technological growth in U.S. manufacturing.

But the majority of the CEOs also noted that programs such as Invent@NMU, which break down manufacturing and engineering silos and put students as young as 18 in touch with industry players, could be the key to a brighter manufacturing outlook.

Lawmakers at the national level are catching on to the promise these ecosystems hold for the manufacturing workforce. In 2015, a bipartisan team of senators introduced the Manufacturing Universities Act in Congress, which would have given 25 universities $5 million each over four years to expand manufacturing and engineering programs.

The bill stalled in the Senate, but its authors managed to place a $10 million competitive grant for engineering universities – called the Manufacturing Engineering Education Grant Program – in the 2017 Department of Defense budget. Senators like Wisconsin Democrat Tammy Baldwin, who sponsored the original act, hope this is the precursor for bigger funding commitments to manufacturing training from Congress.

“By helping schools focus their engineering programs on advanced manufacturing skills, we can equip our next generation of engineers with the skills they need to thrive in the 21st century,” says Baldwin, who sponsored two bills in 2017 that would fund private-public training partnerships for advanced and maritime manufacturing. “That’s why I have requested additional investments in the program so we can continue to see the boost this program will bring to our manufacturing economy.”

Federal agencies such as the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have long been providing funds to create manufacturing-focused universities. In December 2016, the agency gave Delaware $70 million to create the National Institute for Innovation in Manufacturing Pharmaceuticals , which is the 11th manufacturing institution of its kind created between 2008 and 2016.

But the new Manufacturing Engineering Education Program places an emphasis on advancing academia-industry pipelines, instead of simply funding the institutions that host these partnerships. The program is housed within the Department of Defense, but engineering universities don’t have to use the funds to produce defense-related projects if named as grantees.

The program adds to other federal funding support for training pipelines that popped up in 2017. In July, the Advanced Manufacturing Office in the federal Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy cordoned off $2.5 million in funds for university-led advanced manufacturing “traineeship” programs. These will spur new master’s degree curricula in energy sector pipelines where manufacturing workforce programs or federal backing didn’t exist.

Mark Johnson, director of the AMO, says workers in advanced manufacturing in the energy sector need training on data analytics, and the latest computational technologies driving innovation on the shop floor. “We’re trying to encourage more U.S.-based students going through college that are really in a position to become leaders in key technical areas, to wind up taking that next step” toward education beyond a four-year degree, he says.

When federal offices look to the types of examples they’d like to scale with this support, they watch partnerships like the Georgia Tech Manufacturing Institute. Housed within the Georgia Institute of Technology, GTMI is a national research center that also provides undergraduate and graduate students with research and development experience. They partner with regional institutions such as the Georgia Manufacturing Extension Partnership, the Technology Association of Georgia Manufacturing Society and the Technical College System of Georgia.

But a state grant from Georgia Economic Development recently upped their training capacity, and now they’re courting major industry partners who see GTMI as ground zero for future advanced manufacturing talent. In July 2017, GTMI partnered with Delta Air Lines to open the Advanced Manufacturing Pilot Facility, which took an old building partially used for storing furniture from campus residence halls and turned it into a prototype shop floor. Now, GTMI’s academic partners have a shared location where they can collaborate with major corporations and give students the chance to create real products.

“We came to the recognition that we had to work together to cross the market barrier faster,” says Ben Wang, GTMI’s executive director. The pathway from industry prototype to market sometimes takes 20 years for advanced engineering companies. “So we tried to reduce the time to market from 20 years to maybe 15 or 10 years, but nobody had that kind of experience, and nobody has that kind of capability to make it happen alone.” Broader partnerships like the Advanced Manufacturing Pilot Facility will build that capability, while also giving students access to unprecedented work opportunities.

Getting more college students into this pipeline also means getting a greater diversity of high school students interested in manufacturing-related careers. Micah Reid, 20, says she’s been into engineering since she was a little kid. That’s because her parents are scientists. Not everyone comes from that type of background.

“When I was in my high school robotics club, the first couple weeks were almost 50/50 in gender,” she says. “But as time went by, girls were dropping out like flies.”

Reid says retention was an issue because the females in her class started learning STEM skills in high school, while her male peers started years before. That has been documented by the U.S. Department of Commerce, with data that suggests a lack of female role models and gender stereotyping have encouraged a culture where more than 75 percent of all STEM-related careers in the U.S. are occupied by men.

Reid found hope in a school out of Cambridge, Massachusetts, called NuVu. She attended the school when she was 18 and says she was awed by its focus on bridging students from different backgrounds. NuVu students work on physical projects in studios alongside engineers and robotics specialists, instead of sitting in a classroom. “It was a 50/50 gender ratio, and you’d have a 12-year-old working with a 17-year-old. You don’t have this self-segregation” like she noticed in high school. Now, Reid is in her first year at the Olin College of Engineering in Needham, Massachusetts.

Stories like hers are what Northern Michigan University wanted to inspire with its Invent@NMU program. “Not only are you educating and creating reasons for students on the mechanical and trade side to get workforce development service, you’re also training a whole new class of young people on the process of innovation and the process of entrepreneurship,” says David Ollila, founding director of Invent@NMU and president and chief innovation officer at Skypoint Ventures. Breaking down these technical walls will create “a whole new class and culture for young people” that will bring U.S. manufacturing “from mass production back to masses of production,” says Ollila, emphasizing micro-level innovation economies instead of the congested factory floors associated with 20th century manufacturing.

Walsh says he benefited immensely from that more modern approach. “There’s a real stretch between what really goes on in today’s industry and what goes on in school,” he says. “Schools often come up with simulations the best they can, but when it comes down to it, it’s not what’s real.”

Rizwan Ahmed
Rizwan Ahmed
AuditStudent.com, founded by Rizwan Ahmed, is an educational platform dedicated to empowering students and professionals in the all fields of life. Discover comprehensive resources and expert guidance to excel in the dynamic education industry.
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