When I was tasked with starting a new Manufacturing Career Pathway program at White Bear Lake High School two years ago, I brought with me a technology teaching background that spanned 25 years.
While the school was anxious for the program to be a success, I found the tools on hand to do the job sorely lacking. The classroom shop had one little CNC desktop router, a couple of 3D printers and some manual equipment. There wasn’t even a basic CAD/CAM lab.
I didn’t have anything that would help the kids prepare for jobs in today’s advanced manufacturing environment, but I believed that with assistance from our local manufacturing community, I’d be able to determine the curriculum that would benefit my students and the equipment features that would correspond to industry’s needs. Because I’m a teacher in a tactile environment, I want to bring real-world experiences to the students.
To get the ball rolling, I went out and started knocking on the doors of local manufacturing companies. I was a little hesitant at first, because I thought their reaction would be “oh, he just wants money.” Once I explained to them that I was more interested in their input and for them to see what we had and where we wanted to go with the program, they said, “well, we never thought about interacting with the schools. Would it be okay?”
I assured them that they would certainly be welcome to come into our school. And, indeed, they came! That began a series of classroom visits that had industry leaders telling our students about all the jobs available to them in advanced manufacturing and advising me what curriculum and equipment requirements would help our students prepare for those careers.
It wasn’t long before my conversations with our local manufacturers attracted the attention of United Way. Somewhere down the line, one of them said to the United Way people, “you need to talk to Delroy. He’s got some ideas and he’s trying to do something.” So, they came in to talk and they kept coming back, listening to me talk about our program and plans for the program’s future. To make a fairly short story shorter, we were awarded a $250,000 grant to help get our program off the ground.
Backed by United Way’s generosity I was able to respond quickly to the suggestions made by my industry contacts regarding equipment that would help our students roll up their sleeves and become immersed in the manufacturing disciplines they would need to learn to succeed in today’s shops and plants. Our classroom’s shop area now includes a Haas CNC mill and a Haas CNC lathe, in addition to a CNC plasma cutter and a virtual augmented welder from Miller Electric. This equipment provides a wide range of experiences for our students in order to give them a sense of feeling what manufacturing is all about. Our 9th and 10th graders take Manufacturing and Applied Engineering I and II, while our 11th and 12th grade students become immersed in Precision Machining I and II.
I have to say that one of the neatest things for me is when our friends from the metalworking industry come into the school, they see the software and machine tools that they have recommended. They suggested SOLIDWORKS for the design work and Mastercam to program toolpaths for the CNC mill and lathe. Taking their advice, we now have a state-of-the-art CAD/CAM lab. These industry people realize that we have listened to them and are preparing our students for both college entrance and for employment in their companies to meet a growing need for qualified programmers and CNC operators, and, for design engineers who will have a good handle on what route their designs will travel through the production department.
The United Way grant has also allowed us to provide the students with a career navigator, Rich Wessels, just for the Manufacturing Career Pathway program. He’s not a school counselor and he’s not even a school employee. He’s from a company based in Minneapolis, called HIRED.org, a professional workforce development organization that provides one-on-one counseling along with skills training. Rich is helping optimize each of our student’s technical skills.
The strong support cultivated among local industry has resulted in the opportunity for our students to take field trips to see what goes on beyond the classroom. We also have job shadowing opportunities and we’re working on a summer program that will have student-learner internships for a small group of older students to learn and earn in local industry. I’m especially thankful to these companies because they have to change their routine to accommodate us. When a student comes in, they’re going to spend some time working with them and that means overtime down the line because they have to maintain a schedule for delivery of components to their customers. I see this as a major contribution to our program as well as an investment in their own workforce as these students graduate and become skilled full-time employees.
Lately, I’ve taken my mission to provide our students with a practical working exposure into the political arena. I’ve been involved in supporting a bill before the Senate in Minnesota, that would take the minimum age requirement for working in manufacturing from 18 down to 16, when underneath a learning environment. This would allow students to have some valuable experiences within the manufacturing industry outside of school, earlier in the educational process.
In our curriculum, we go from fundamental manufacturing processes all the way into CNC machine controls. The first levels are a little bit more exploratory, introducing the students to parametric modeling and looking at geometric dimensioning at an entry level. I lead them quickly into programs that involve some basic SOLIDWORKS design, Mastercam toolpath programming and CNC machining. I get them involved with automated manufacturing within the entry-level course because I want to build on their excitement all the way through to the Precision Machining II level.
One of the questions visitors to the school frequently ask involves the projects I’ve set up for the students. I don’t concentrate on any particular projects in the beginning. I work on getting them familiar with the processes that will make more sense with actual projects down the line. Once they get into Mastercam with virtual and then actual machining, their excitement will build as they apply the processes to the product and I give them increasingly more difficult projects that complement their expanding skills.
I’m also the coach for the FIRST robotics team at the school. These energetic students build a robot each year for regional competition. They are learning to integrate metalworking skills with electrical technology and assembly techniques to achieve work-oriented goals. We hope to someday claim to be a national robotics champion, but we’re not there, yet. We get the guidelines and challenges at the same time as all the other competitors. Students have to design and fabricate their robot in keeping with the guidelines.
Many of our students have aspirations of becoming engineers, but right now they’re just “idea” people. They have ideas about manufacturing products out of wood, such as furniture and housing components, which is actually a big part of my own background. Others are excited about the plastic products in their lives, while others think in terms of the metal components of cars, planes and hardware. They like the idea of becoming an engineer and it’s my job to teach them the manufacturing basics that will help them realize their dream. I remind them, ‘whether you think about fabricating things out of wood, or plastic, or metal, you should take the material’s name out of it because it’s all manufacturing.’ In today’s world, that means automated manufacturing and that leads up to the products they will find in the home, on the shelf or in the showroom.
On the bottom line, I find that the keys to a successful program are often found among many sources. Search out the availability of grants. Check out the offerings of organizations such as robotics developers. And above all, look to the manufacturers in your community. I think you’ll find them to be, by and large, a willing source for advice, encouragement and materials as you develop your own advanced manufacturing curriculum.