Across pockets of the Bluegrass State, kids of all ages are delving into cool, project-based learning designed to build a future workforce that embraces technology in every facet of corporate growth.
Forget routine memorization, or weeks of pop quizzes as primary learning tools. Career paths are now crafted around visionary undertakings of their own design: building robots; planning a satellite payload; constructing a building; wiring a circuit board; building a 3-D printer; or making sporty transportation like skateboards from start to finish.
Workforce development with clear intent toward tech and advanced manufacturing careers has become a groundswell in the commonwealth as corporations, educational institutions, parents and even students realize that the future is now. Across the state there are many unfilled jobs that require technology training – usually with math and science underpinnings – and that number is only increasing. To stay competitive, business and industry today pursue productivity and process improvements at a rate that has outpaced static training and education models.
The goal is a workforce pool that not only possesses tech know-how but knows how to be creative and problem-solve within that realm. It’s driving executives and administrators to build innovative thought processes into the skills development process, in classrooms and in the broader environment.
What is STEAM?
This approach is known as STEAM outreach, which stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math. The term STEM, leaving out the “A” for art, has become better known – since some argue art and creativity are within science-based disciplines by definition. This outreach encompasses after-school programs, curriculum at the school level, specialty internships, field trips, nonprofit and club-based maker spaces, in-classroom year-long projects, and field work for companies where mentoring is possible.
While a middle and high school focus is apparent, many programs are being redesigned for K-12 in after-school models and clubs as well in the classroom, particularly by training teachers to deliver project-based learning.
Efforts in Kentucky are part of a much bigger race toward hands-on learning. Nationwide, STEM jobs are growing 1.7 times faster than non-STEM jobs, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. A Kentucky Chamber of Commerce report in December found the commonwealth adding manufacturing jobs at three times the national rate.
“Many people living in Kentucky don’t understand that we are an advanced manufacturing state. We’ve got to design (supporting) ecosystems here that work,” said Brad Thomas, associate manager of economic development at East Kentucky Power Cooperative. “Education is responsible for you getting the career you now have. We need to be saying to our kids: ‘We make aerospace products in the state. Would you like to do this?’ ”
Thomas enjoys loading up his truck and showing off a mini-satellite to the school-age, because at once there is a spark of excitement…especially when they realize they could learn how to build one, man it with a science project, or be a part of a launch.
East Kentucky Power Co-op actively supports the two-year-old Shaping Our Appalachian Region (SOAR) initiative, primarily through a STEM-based-education workforce initiative for educators across Eastern Kentucky. The project will equip 100,000 students and 3,000 teachers in that region with world-class science, technology, engineering and math skills.
The aerospace products comment by Thomas, also a Kentucky Association for Economic Development board member, references the fact that fully half of Kentucky’s annual exports are divided between $7.8 billion in aerospace parts and products, and $5.9 billion in motor vehicles, parts, bodies and trailers.
“STEAM is not just computer-based learning,” said Ken Talley, director of career and technical education for Jefferson County Public Schools. He cites several programs begun in the last decade that bring the “real world” into the classroom.
One growing annually is a partnership with the local ACE Mentor Program of America affiliate, in which members of the architecture, construction and engineering (ACE) fields help mentor high school students and inspire them to pursue careers in design and construction. In its seventh year, it now touches 70 public and Catholic education students at Louisville-area high schools such as Jeffersontown, Iroquois and Trinity.
Open community labs and workshops known as maker spaces also are cropping up. For example, Shawnee Alumni Club has undertaken funding with several community partners for one at Shawnee High School in Jefferson County. Other student maker spaces in Louisville include LVL1 in the Butchertown area; UofL’s Engineering Garage (new-2015); The Maker Place of the local Kentuckiana Girl Scouts (new-2015), and Fab Lab at the private Kentucky Country Day School.
STEAM curriculum advancement at the school district level has seen interesting progress in the last decade. In 2013, Fayette County – in partnership with the University of Kentucky – created a STEAM Academy whose mission is to graduate 100 percent of its students, leading them to college or careers in the 21st-century global workforce. UK is hosting, but there are efforts to find a new permanent location.
Launch of Kentucky FAME
Many across the state are watching the new Kentucky Federation for Advanced Manufacturing Education (KY FAME) program, a partnership between Kentucky Community and Technical College System and regional manufacturers to implement dual-track, apprenticeship-style training. This will create a pipeline of highly skilled workers through community colleges, with early outreach to high school and certain middle school populations. After launching in 2014 in the Bluegrass region, KYFAME expanded to eight regional chapters in 2015. The fundamental skills imparted come from the Advanced Manufacturing Technician (AMT) program curriculum developed by Toyota and Bluegrass Community and Technical College.
Nationally, manufacturers estimated they have at least 600,000 unfilled jobs because appropriately skilled workers cannot be found. Salaries for these “mid-skilled” employees range from $30,000 to $80,000 a year. KY FAME students attend AMT classes two days per week at a KCTCS location and work 24 hours (three normal work shifts) per week for a sponsoring employer.
Students receive an associate degree in applied sciences in 15 months and can expect to begin full-time employment with their sponsor company. In Western Kentucky, sponsors include Wacker Chemical; T.RAD North America; Briggs & Stratton; Centrifugal Technologies; Baptist Health Madisonville; Vanderbilt Chemical; Progress Rail Services; Hibbs Electromechanical Air Relief; Integrated Metal Solutions; MVP Group International; International Automotive Components; MRCOOL; ACE Compressor Services; and GE Aviation.
Other programs addressing career pathways are due for re-evaluation and refinement.
The Jefferson County Public Schools system is in the fifth year of its 5-Star Schools program, offering hands-on training in five technical themes touching on 100 career and technical education pathways, Talley said. It may soon reconvene its task force to redesign and move forward in 2016.
“It almost always requires community support to start a new program because of legislative limits on funding,” he said. “There’s a need to offer more career counseling to our high school graduates, and it needs to be addressed.”
A part of the model that JCPS believes works are externships for teachers to bring them together with employers and explore careers that serve today’s workforce, Talley said.
Jerry Burke, who has taught welding at Jeffersontown High for 20 years, recently completed an externship and engaged his junior-level students in a real world project for Raptor Rehabilitation of Kentucky to create and install a security gate. Ford Next Generation Learning is a grant-type program feeding this type of model.
Youth apprenticeship programs rolled out
Beyond teacher externships, public education also offers more hands-on apprenticeships. Another statewide youth pre-apprenticeship program announced in September 2015 is the Tech Ready Apprentices for Careers in Kentucky. TRACK is a partnership between the Kentucky Labor Cabinet and the state Department of Education’s Office of Career and Technical Education. It provides secondary students with career pathway opportunities into registered apprenticeship programs like welding, electrical work and carpentry. Students can receive a nationally recognized credential at little or no cost that is valued by employers looking for job-ready workers.
Where are the STEAM careers?
Workforce avenues are now monitored by a number of national and regional organizations tied to K-12 education. As defined by the national Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings Institution, these are the top STEM occupations in Jefferson County: computer occupations; health diagnosing and treating practitioners; construction trade workers; financial specialists; engineers; metal and plastic workers; operations specialty managers; other installation, maintenance and repair occupations; and electrical and electronic equipment workers, mechanics and installers.
STEAM investments in higher education
Jefferson Community and Technical College has included a $33.4 million Advanced Manufacturing/Automotive Technology Center among its capital budget funding priorities for 2016. The center is to be built adjacent to the downtown campus on Broadway in Louisville.
Private byte-sized education also is appearing. Software coding boot camps are appearing for adults already in the professional workforce who are looking for additional skills, or those who’ve taken some college-level math courses but are up for more intensive training.
The Software Guild, now a part of The Learning House, is actively addressing education needs in Louisville for entry-level software developer positions. As the region’s adult software coding boot camp, it teaches .NET and Java skills in 12 weeks, aiming to train workers to fill the hundreds of open tech jobs in Kentuckiana. The next classes start in February. ν
Dawn Marie Yankeelov is a correspondent for The Lane Report. She can be reached at [email protected]