Manufacturing is on the rise again in the greater Pittsburgh region, but if you’re imagining a return of the blast furnaces and smoke stacks that typified heavy industry in the 20th century, think again. New technologies—from 3D design and rapid prototyping to automation and additive manufacturing—have transformed the business of making things.
With these advances come new career opportunities that look just as unfamiliar when compared with the grit and grime encountered by the manufacturing workforce of the past. As described in Inflection Point, a 2016 study by the Allegheny Conference, today’s manufacturing workers are just as likely to use design software or program a robot as they are to wield a welding torch or operate production machinery.
The result is that employers are struggling to find employees who possess a now necessary combination of creative thinking, collaborative problem-solving, technical know-how, and hands-on skill to fill the roles available in today’s manufacturing sector.
Faced with this challenge, both employers and educators are taking lessons from the maker movement to build new models for career and technical education. The maker movement has been powering a resurgence of interest in hands-on creativity and informal innovation among hobbyists and tinkerers for years. The question now is how do we make the leap from maker to manufacturer?
In the Pittsburgh region, schools, workforce development agencies, and youth-serving organizations are using maker learning approaches to help students develop technical skills and inquisitive dispositions, expose them to future career opportunities, and enhance connections to growing industries that offer family-sustaining jobs.
Across the region, more than 120 manufacturing-related programs are underway, including project-based learning in schools, creative and collaborative maker after-school activities, and teacher training initiatives. The challenge is linking these many individual efforts into a coherent, comprehensive, and complementary continuum of learning experiences.
Exploring early with creative technology
As any maker will tell you, trial and error is an inherent part of the process. Similarly, early maker learning activities are often about exploration and discovery. From pre-kindergarten and elementary school to high school levels, students learn valuable lessons about physical materials, hands-on techniques, and creative thinking as they take their first steps in making.
While programs like these may not form a direct connection to manufacturing, they lay the foundation of knowledge, skills and dispositions for making. Plus, they get kids excited about learning and introduce them to possibilities of making ever more complex things.
You see maker learning experiences like these at public events like Maker Faire Pittsburgh, where thousands of kids and families are exposed to hands-on creativity. Hands-on activities are a standard feature of most summer camps, but maker spaces like the MAKESHOP at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh turn traditional arts and crafts on its head by combining old-school making like sewing and woodworking with new-school making that integrates electronics and circuitry.
To help more schools provide these kinds of exploratory experiences to students, especially during the critical early years of elementary, some schools of education are integrating maker practices into training for pre-service teachers and professional development for teachers already working in the classroom. For example, the Center for Arts and Education at West Liberty University is a multi-faceted hands-on learning laboratory and resource center focused on the integration of the arts, creativity, and technology.
“In the world of work and the real world that will come for those children who are now in the pre-K through 12 system, adaptability is critical,” says Dr. Keeley Camden, Dean of the College of Education at West Liberty University. “How adaptable can you be to the changes that are happening so rapidly? What can you contribute? How can you utilize whatever you have on-hand to work for the greater good?”
Making connections to manufacturing skills
Next stop on the pathway from make to manufacturing is the development of skills, both the technical skills needed to build and produce physical products, and the “soft skills” that are as much about mindset as they are about skillset. Often called “21st-Century Skills,” these include the ability to think critically about a problem, to work collaboratively with a team, to communicate ideas and questions clearly, and to harness the individual and collective creativity of the group to solve challenges.
Members of the Remake Learning community are integrating these hard and soft skills through interdisciplinary approaches that combine science, technology, engineering, arts and math— otherwise known as STEAM. In the Fort Cherry School District students participating in the Design2Display project build connections between design, making, and business by creating and producing goods for sale, from concept inception to prototype production through product marketing.
The IU1 Fablab brings hands-on STEM & STEAM learning opportunities to K-12 students in rural communities in southwestern Pennsylvania. In a learn-by-doing setting, students explore the entire engineering design process in authentic and real world contexts by providing tools that enable them to go from concept to drawing, models to prototype, and redesign to final product. The lab serves as a motivational environment to encourage student engagement with technology.
“Being an educator for over 26 years, I can tell you that there was a period of time when creativity had gone away from the classroom. Maker spaces bring all that back,” says Don Martin, Assistant Executive Director of Intermediate Unit 1, an educational services agency that serves school districts in Fayette, Greene, and Washington Counties. “A lot of people think you go in and run a machine, you run a 3D printer or a laser cutter. But really, it provides more than just creating something. It’s the full package of essential skills that students take with them when they leave and enter the workforce.”
Building awareness and interest in manufacturing careers
While experiential learning opens the door for students to explore making things with their hands and project-based learning in makerspaces helps students build valuable skills, how do you then draw the connections from these maker learning experiences to careers in manufacturing?
Catalyst Connection, a 501c3 non-profit economic development that works with 3,000 manufacturing companies across southwestern Pennsylvania, has been introducing young people to the new face of manufacturing for 15 years.
Through their Explore the New Manufacturing initiative, Catalyst Connection connects students with employers searching for new talent and skilled tradespeople who have turned their craft into rewarding careers in manufacturing.
“Manufacturing provides opportunities for people to develop their career. From an entry-level position, you can grow your skills and capabilities and then move into any area of the business,” says Petra Mitchell, President and CEO of Catalyst Connection. “The maker movement is an excellent career awareness opportunity. When students think about how to make something and how to see a product come to fruition, that’s the first step of manufacturing.”
Catalyst Connection partners with manufacturers to create experiences that introduce young people to career opportunities they may have never considered. Through a student video contest, middle school students produce short documentaries about a local manufacturing business. The Manufacturing Innovation Challenge pairs a team of high school students with a company facing a production challenge and tasks the students with developing a workable (and economical) solution. And to help teachers bring real world relevance into their instruction, Catalyst Connection partners with ASSET STEM Education to lead professional development workshops on project-based learning for area educators.
“Teachers are often the main source of career awareness and career education,” says Mitchell. “We want to make sure that teachers are fully up-to-speed on the opportunities in manufacturing.”
This post is part of a special series exploring the connections between maker learning and careers in manufacturing. In the next installment, we’ll see how educators are supporting students as they explore where their passion for making can take them, both in school and in the world of work.