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Society of Manufacturing Engineers

Quality Insider

The Future of Manufacturing Is in the Third Grade

SME’s Gateway Academy encourages science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education

Published: Wednesday, August 4, 2010 - 04:30

The world admires the United States for our education system. Students from China, India, Russia, and a host of other countries fill our colleges and universities. However, after degrees and work experience are secured, unless they are offered extraordinary salaries and benefits by technology-based companies, they often return to their respective countries, while the United States continues to report a lack of skilled workers.

In 2003, manufacturing was a striking addition to the national agenda, which included evaluating the state of the industry, education, and work force. At the time, this topic received attention from all levels of government, across all news media. That same year, Saul K. Fenster, Ph.D., president emeritus of the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT), served as president of the SME Education Foundation. He concluded that while the prominence of these issues was certainly a validation of the foundation’s work, it was also a call to action. He accelerated the expansion of SME’s efforts, which required a great level of commitment from its leadership, volunteers, and donors.

“Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education is not only a prelude to engineering, but also to innovation manufacturing in the 21st century,” Fenster says. “STEM education is also crucial to fields in all areas of society, including the financial, medical, and biological sectors. Engineering is a problem-solving profession, and when young people realize it is creative and fun, they are less apprehensive about its more challenging curriculum, and learning is made significantly easier.”

The Gateway Academy, a summer day-camp program, introduces young people to science and engineering. This summer, more than 4,200 boys and girls between the ages of 11 and 14 are attending 214 Gateway sessions at 187 sites in 34 states. The program appeals to students through hands-on, project-based courses where students have fun while applying the fundamentals of STEM education. The program is operated by Project Lead the Way (PLTW), a national nonprofit organization, and funded by the SME Education Foundation.

An example of its popularity this year is the Gateway Academy held at Green Bay West High School in Greenbay, Wisconsin, where students learned to make cars out of paper, catapults out of mouse traps, and robots using computer software. An article from the July 10 issue of Green Bay Press Gazette noted that students were so enthusiastic about the science and engineering day camp, they initiated their own projects and didn’t want to leave at the end of the day.

“Given our current economic conundrum, the nation is finally beginning to realize how critically important the manufacturing industry is,” says Fenster. “As manufacturing job losses continue to be reported, we need to make sure young people—and parents who influence their decisions—are not confused about the issues. The excitement and self-motivated learning experience we saw at the Green Bay summer camp is an example of how we can open the eyes of young people to their career potential.”

Careers in manufacturing are becoming increasingly enviable. U.S. policymakers are recognizing that having a manufacturing base that is strong, efficient, and innovative is essential to our country’s economic future and our country’s place in the global community. As companies begin to rethink off-shoring and consider redirecting their manufacturing and production facilities back to the United States, skilled workers are and will be needed.

The word “innovation,” which has become the manufacturing industry’s battle cry, will keep this highly charged industry from falling off its axle. As innovation brings about advanced technologies, educators will need to keep pace with their digitally-enamored students. How better to reach them than through learning processes to which they can relate? Preparing for a career in manufacturing is no longer based on following the education standards created 50 years ago.

“The clash between old and new is manifest in profound differences between institutions of higher education and the students they enroll,” says Arthur Levine, president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation and president emeritus of Teachers College, Columbia University. “Today’s students are digital natives. They are growing up in a world of computers, internet, cell phones, MP3 players, and social networking.”

Students’ 24/7 lifestyle, unbounded by physical location, will affect how they perceive job opportunities and how they will prepare for them. These attitudes will reshape the manufacturing industry and its relationship with future workers. This view is supported in “Manufacturing Resurgence—A Must for U.S. Prosperity,” a study from the National Association of Manufacturers. As noted in the study, “Today, while most production takes place in a plant, increasingly there are also places like the home (telecommuting), space (satellites that move data), and rooftops of homes and buildings (solar panels).”

Major support from the SME Education Foundation for this endeavor has included:

• An investment of $5.3 million in youth programs, helping more than 15,000 young people explore career opportunities in STEM education

• Grant-funding of more than $4.7 million in scholarships to students pursuing manufacturing-related careers

• An investment of $17.3 million in grants to 35 colleges and universities to develop industry-driven curricula

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Society of Manufacturing Engineers

The Society of Manufacturing Engineers (SME) is the premier source for manufacturing knowledge, education, and networking. Through its many programs, events, and activities, SME connects manufacturing practitioners to each other, to the latest technology, and the most up-to-date processes spanning all manufacturing industries and disciplines, plus the key areas of aerospace and defense, medical device, motor vehicles, including motorsports, and oil and gas. A 501(c)3 organization, SME has members in more than 70 countries and is supported by a network of technical communities and chapters worldwide.