Tag Archives: manufacturing

Modes of making: exploration, engineering, and entrepreneurship

Educators know the power of hands-on learning. Ask any teacher, coach, or mentor what they see when their students engage in hands-on maker activities and chances are they’ll describe how students are activated with interest and curiosity as they put their learning into action through making.

That’s one reason why maker learning has steadily gone from the fringes to the mainstream of teaching practices in classrooms, after school programs, and summer camps. In the Pittsburgh region, Remake Learning has identified more than 170 makerspaces, including more than a hundred in area school districts.

This concentration of maker learning has also produced some insights into the inner workings of maker learning, insights that Remake Learning members are sharing with others working to expand access to maker learning opportunities.

But what is maker learning good for? In addition to the thrill of discovery and spirit of invention inherent in maker activities, there are real learning benefits to hands-on creativity and collaborative problem-solving. Maker learning incorporates a range of competencies related to the creative process, researching, developing, and testing a design, as well as building technical skills with tools, materials, and techniques that prepare learners for future career opportunities.

“Making is about more than creating objects, learning STEM principles, or how to code,” University of Pittsburgh researcher Leanne Bowler wrote in a previous blog post. “It is also about understanding the process, thinking critically about oneself and the role that one’s values and assumptions can have on the objects one makes, and the effect that one’s creations might have on others.”

In other words, maker learning is as much about developing the curiosity to explore new ideas and the confidence to tackle difficult challenges as it is about learning to use tools and materials to make (and re-make) the world around you.

Making connections to the physical world

Many maker learning experiences embrace playful discovery, especially activities and programs for younger children and their families. This form of open, exploratory maker learning is best exemplified by MAKESHOP at The Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, a place where kids and their family learn together with teaching artists and maker educators.

“MAKESHOP was one of the first makerspaces designed for family audiences,” says Lisa Brahms, director of learning and research at the Children’s Museum. “We did the prototyping, we made the mistakes that other people can learn from. We’ve had the opportunity to study it and now we can be a model.”

MAKESHOP intentionally mixes high-tech making like 3D printing with more traditional crafts like weaving, sewing, and woodworking. It’s an environment rich enough to attract the attention of Adam Savage, who visited MAKESHOP as part of his national Maker Tour.

But as important as the tools and technologies are, reflections that result from the co-learning that happens among the learner, their family, and the mentors is where the deeper learning occurs.

“One of the biggest things kids can take away from making is seeing the world in a different way,” says MAKESHOP manager Rebecca Grabman. “For a kid who’s never made anything before, making personally empowering to them. It shows them they are able to create the things they want and need in their life.”

For Lisa Brahms, who also part of the original team of researchers and graduate students from the University of Pittsburgh Center for Learning in Out-of-School Environments that collaborated with the Children’s Museum to develop MAKESHOP, maker learning spaces are themselves made to fit their specific context.

“There’s no one right way to do it,” says Brahms. “It’s important for each maker program to think ‘Why making? Why do we want making to be part of what we do? Who are the people that are part of that experience? What is the stuff that we want to make?’”

In cooperation with the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the Children’s Museum set out to turn these insights into Making+Learning, a framework to help others set up their own maker learning spaces.

And to help more schools incorporate maker learning into their curriculum, from early childhood to tech-ed, The Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, in partnership with Google and Maker Ed, launched the Making Spaces initiative which helped 10 schools develop the resources and know-how necessary to establish spaces for hands-on, project-based maker learning in classrooms and other in-school spaces.

Blurring the lines between making and engineering

For students who catch the maker bug, new interdisciplinary approaches to STEM provide them with opportunities to level-up their skills and make academic progress. Project Lead the Way (PLTW) is a national nonprofit helping schools bring more hands-on learning into the K-12 system.

Several school districts in the Pittsburgh region participate in PLTW, including Chartiers Valley where educators are using PLTW’s engineering pathway for middle and high school students. Using a project-based curriculum that emphasizes design thinking and hands-on making, teachers at Chartiers Valley challenge students to investigate engineering challenges ranging from making more efficient energy systems to improving automated manufacturing production.

“Many students who are considering college might want to re-evaluate that decision and look at training programs or associates degrees,” says Superintendent Brian White. “The students get hands on experience and an appetite to create new things in the world. It really opens up all kinds of doors.”

Throughout the program, students learn the principles of science, technology, engineering, and math, design ways to apply those principles to solve a problem, and use industry-grade technology like 3D modeling software and plasma cutters to turn their designs into real products. A recent student project earned an award from the Smithsonian Institution and filed a patent for a double-bladed windmill they created that doubled its energy production capacity.

“We’ve had students go everywhere after coming out of Project Lead the Way,” adds Jeff Macek, who teaches applied engineering and co-leads PLTW at Chartiers Valley. “Some students have gone on to become aerospace engineers for NASA.”

Making maker entrepreneurs

For some students considering their future in the world of work, becoming a maker entrepreneur gives them the chance to turn their hobby into their livelihood. Startable Pittsburgh is a maker-oriented youth entrepreneurship program borne out of the city’s growing startup community as a way to help young makers make a living through making.

Over the course of an eight-week summer session, teens are coached by other maker entrepreneurs as they develop ideas for a product, create a business plan, and then dive headlong into making that product a reality.

“Teens split their time between Alphalab Gear, a startup accelerator, and TechShop, a makerspace with everything you need to prototype and do small-batch manufacturing,” explains Startable program coordinator Jackie Shimshoni. “At the end, students launch their business at an open market of all their products and pitch their business idea to investors.”

Startable is emblematic of the kinds of self-directed learning that out-of-school learning programs provide to students as a complement to their in-school learning experiences. Youth are given the flexibility and independence to pursue their ideas and develop their skills at their own pace, but also have a supportive network of peers and mentors at the ready.

“I had no idea what I was going to make coming into the program,” says Miranda Miller, Startable alum. “But I had a huge field of mentors and instructors who helped me along the way.”

Through Startable, young people have launched businesses making jewelry, designing and fabricating lighting fixtures, constructing lawn furniture, and producing a local fashion line. While the businesses range in ambition and longevity, they signal a broadening and deepening of Pittsburgh’s startup business community.

“As a region like Pittsburgh develops, inequities can develop with it,” says Shimshoni. “By democratizing maker resources, we’re hoping to get more diverse voices in the engineering and maker fields. We need more minority entrepreneurs, we need more female entrepreneurs,” says Shimshoni. “If Startable can contribute to that in the next five to ten years, I think we will have done our job.”


In the final installment, we’ll see how employers are partnering with educators to help students channel their passion for making into careers in manufacturing, production, and entrepreneurship.

Making, from cradle to career

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.

Can the Maker Movement Spark a “Manufacturing Renaissance?”

Supporting the Maker Movement is one way to bring back economic growth, manufacturing ecosystems, and decent blue-collar jobs. So say the Brookings Institution’s Mark Muro and Peter Hirshberg, in “Maker City: A Practical Guide for Reinventing American Cities.”

In a blog post in January, Muro and Hirshberg write:

“The Maker Movement isn’t just about reviving manufacturing in cities (though it is doing that). In addition, the movement is proving that anyone can be a maker and that genuine progress on the nation’s most pressing problems can be made from the bottom up by do-it-yourselfers, entrepreneurs, committed artisans, students, and civic leaders through what our colleague Bruce Katz calls ‘new localism.’”

The authors call on the Trump administration to provide support in the form of tax credits or competitive grants to support local maker activity and to expand the relationships between makers and larger-scale commercial manufacturers. But absent this support, the authors call on local leaders —mayors, community college administrators, local businesses—to take matters into their own hands. They offer tips on how to do just that. Many of these tips, we should point out, are ones leaders in Pittsburgh are already doing.

Their advice includes:

  • Start organically by mapping the local maker community (see this cool map).

Remake Learning is mapping its own network, including many maker opportunities, and we have a playbook for how to start a learning ecosystem.

  • Engage community colleges, universities, and national laboratories.

See our post from earlier this month on how local programs like CodeTN in Tennessee are encouraging local high school students to attend coding programs at community colleges. In Pittsburgh, community colleges are working to better align courses with employer needs and emerging job clusters. “Westmoreland Community College has a whole new facility around advanced manufacturing,” Petra Mitchell, executive director of Catalyst Connection told us back in November.

  • Pull in the private sector

Catalyst Connection, an economic development organization focused on small manufacturers in Pittsburgh, runs ten-week programs that have students solving real-world problems the manufacturers identify. Students visit the company, learn about an issue or problem that has arisen, and then go back to the classroom to come up with a solution.

  • Experiment with new forms of education and training

The Brookings post highlights work going in Pittsburgh to “give kids access to modern production tools as a way to excite involvement.” They point to work in the Elizabeth Forward school district that led to the creation of the Dream Factory there. The Dream Factory, they write, is “a set of integrated classrooms where middle-schoolers learn how to use computers, 3-D printers, and CNC tools to create robots, drones, or whatever else they want. As a result, drop-out rates have fallen drastically at the school.”

We’re proud as a Network to have helped the Maker Movement thrive in our own community, but we still have work to do. As Gregg Behr and Dr. Lynne Schrum, the founding chairs of the Remake Learning Council, write in the introduction to the Remake Learning Playbook:

“We’ve learned a lot since our first breakfast brainstorms. We’ve tried many things, and we’ve made plenty of mistakes. But ultimately, we’ve seen significant progress in our effort to provide all children and youth with the best available opportunities to learn and be creative. We’re confident that all of us, together, can remake learning all across America.”

And now, if Brookings is right, maybe we can help remake manufacturing as well.

Pittsburgh’s Pipeline Problem and How the City is Solving it

Over one week this last summer kids in Pittsburgh’s Carrick neighborhood turned into urban agriculture experts, building a greenhouse from water bottles. In another neighborhood rec center, kids tested a virtual reality tool from Carnegie Mellon University. At still another, they dissected a pig heart and printed 3D models of the organ.

The kids in these Rec2Tech programs aren’t only having fun. They’re building valuable skills, by design. The Pittsburgh region is set to add thousands of new jobs in the next decade, and it has to be ready.

LaTrenda Leonard Sherrill, deputy chief of education at Pittsburgh’s Office of the Mayor, is one of many who saw a great opportunity.

“Why not turn our [rec] centers into these places where people can come and really gain access to 21st century skills?” she told Remake Learning last summer.

Critical thinking, teamwork, basic engineering concepts—they’re all in high demand, says Linda Topoleski, vice president of Workforce Programs and Operations at the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, which just completed a major survey of local employer needs.

“We need to make sure our skill sets are aligned with workforce demand.”

Yet while Rec2Tech is working hard to create future innovators, storm clouds are gathering. On the eve of hosting the National League of Cities’ annual City Summit Nov. 16-19, which brings leaders from across the country to hear about Pittsburgh’s transformation from steel capital to technology and medical hub—the city and region stand at a crossroads.

While Pittsburgh is receiving well-deserved accolades for its economic rebirth, the city isn’t out of the woods.

The pipeline of children graduating with the right sets of skills isn’t enough to meet future demand, finds “Inflection Point,” a new workforce study by the Allegheny Conference. Even if every child remained in the city after graduation—a big if—the region would still lack enough skilled workers to fill the demand. In short, too few kids are thinking about jobs in fields that the city is building—fields like high-tech manufacturing, radiologic technology, and other middle-tier jobs.

Pittsburgh is looking down the barrel of 340,000 retirements in the next decade, but only 260,000 high school seniors are entering the workforce, says Topoleski. Manufacturers in the region will lose one-fourth of their workforce in the next 10 years. That means that “we need to make sure our skill sets are aligned with workforce demand,” says Topoleski.

The Dream Factory at Elizabeth Forward Middle School. Photo/Ben Filio

The Dream Factory at Elizabeth Forward Middle School. Photo/Ben Filio

Everyone Has a Role to Play

Remake Learning is doing its part to prepare the next generation for the future, with its network of in- and out-of-school programs that help develop the STEM, collaboration, and creative thinking skills needed in the jobs of tomorrow. Further, says Topoleski, Remake Learning has “ignited a level of interest and excitement about looking at education in new ways,” and is helping kids develop the concepts and activities that are important building blocks to later success. “When you’re exposed to 3D printing at summer camp in 8th grade, that’s a key skill later,” she says.

The most forward-thinking schools in the region are rethinking learning, placing hands-on experiences alongside the traditional models. Students at the Elizabeth Forward schools in Elizabeth, Pa. have access to 3D printers in the Dream Factory, a state-of-the-art maker lab, and Chevron-funded FabLabs at the Carnegie Science Center and the Intermediate Unit 1 let kids and their families build creations with high-tech machinery.

Employers are getting directly involved with their pipeline of workers: schools.

The region is also working to expand opportunities for marginalized youth. Programs like TechHire Pittsburgh, a Three Rivers Workforce Development Board effort, create opportunities for disadvantaged young people to receive short-term technical training for jobs like computer user support specialists, for example (also called quality assurance positions) who test software. These programs can function as quick onramps to better paying jobs that do not require a four-year degree. With a typical salary of $44,000 and an 11 percent growth rate, according to Inflection Point, these support specialists jobs offer a ladder to the middle class.

Employers are getting involved more directly with their pipeline of workers: the schools.

Catalyst Connection, an economic development organization focused on small manufacturers, for example, connects employers with students directly. The organization runs ten-week programs that have students solving real-world problems for the business. Students visit the company, learn about an issue or problem that has arisen, and then go back to the classroom to come up with a solution.


Exploring virtual reality at Rec2Tech. Photo/Ben Filio

Intervala, a company that assembles component parts for different precision products, was looking at a $20,000 investment in new machinery to assemble a device for Stork, a home conception device. High school students in the Burrell school district were tasked with improving one aspect of the assembly process. They found a $1,000 solution by adding a simple gadget to the assembly process, saving the company its $20,000 investment, says Scott Dietz, manager of Workforce Education Initiatives at Catalyst Connection. Dietz is the liaison between education and industry for the organization. The program has been running at Burrell for six years, and science teachers have taken the lead in helping students work through the process, applying the scientific process to the company’s problems. “That’s critical thinking 101,” says Dietz.

Manufacturers in the Pittsburgh region will lose 1/4 of their workforce in the next 10 years.

In addition to building skills, “kids get out of the four walls of their classroom and see what industry looks like. And teachers can see how things work, and carry it back to classroom,” Dietz says. Catalyst Connection, with support from ALCOA and Chevron, offers a two-day training session for teachers to learn about the program and about problem-solving principles and methods in industry. Many teachers are applying those principles in their project-based learning in the classroom, says Dietz. They have trained 60 teachers so far this year, with 150 more scheduled between now and June.

“For us, it’s about influencing the influencers,” says Dietz. “Guidance counselors have too much on their plate. But teachers are go-to people to encourage kids on career pathways, or encouraging the skills in math and science that are needed.”

It’s not just middle and high schools that are developing these skill sets. Community colleges and others are also working to better align courses with employer needs or emerging job clusters. “Westmoreland Community College has a whole new facility around advanced manufacturing,” says Petra Mitchell, executive director of Catalyst Connection.


But Jobs, Education—and Expectations—Must Be Better Aligned

Though many are doing their part to ensure that kids have secure futures, one thing is missing. Parents, youth, and educators need to shift their thinking about what constitutes a high-growth, important, worthwhile occupation, says Topoleski.

A first step is to better align education and training with the jobs in high demand. Currently, these systems are far from aligned. “We have a machinist track in high schools with only 350 students, but 700 open jobs,” says Topoleski. Machinist jobs are projected to grow by 11 percent over the next decade.

What constitutes a worthwhile occupation in today’s economy?

Part of the misalignment starts at home, with parents, says Topoleski, who typically want their children to get a four-year college degree. Yet two-thirds of the new jobs in the region will not require a BA, the workforce report finds. National figures back that up. Projects by the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce find that while a majority of jobs by 2020 will require education beyond high school, half of those jobs require less than a BA.

“The reality is that the economy of the future will require highly skilled talent but not necessarily skills from a four-year program. Not to denigrate BAs, but we need both,” says Topoleski.

But many parents in Pittsburgh lived through the turmoil of downsizing in the manufacturing sector with mass layoffs. Parents don’t want their child to live with that volatility, says Mitchell of Catalyst Connection. But, she notes, most of today’s layoffs occur in the biggest employers, not the small manufacturers that make up the Pittsburgh region. Small manufacturers, she says, are not as prone to layoffs as the big companies who are beholden to their shareholders, so volatility is less of an issue.

“There’s an emotional piece of this,” says Topoleski. “[Parents] have to let go of where things were and realize the future is going to look different. If they want their kids on a promising, relevant path, they have to take a look at workforce demand and what it will take to get there.”

If Pittsburgh is to continue to innovate, it must prepare its children for the future. That means tapping their potential early, imbuing them with the technological and critical thinking skills they will need, and providing clear pathways into viable jobs that can accelerate Pittsburgh on its goals of inclusive innovation.


Saltwater Batteries, Finland, and Pittsburgh’s Promising Advanced Industries

Before you think a new report on the state of “advanced industries” in the United States might be a bit dry, two words for you: Saltwater. Batteries.

Pittsburgh’s Aquion Energy builds saltwater batteries that, although complicated, truly sound like the stuff of the future. The environmentally friendly battery uses nontoxic materials like saltwater to act as the electrolyte. The batteries can be used in large-scale energy systems like solar and wind power generators.

Aquion Energy is an example of what the new report from Brookings calls the “advanced industries.” Ranging from software publishing to ship building, the 50-industry segment of the economy is characterized by its deep involvement in technology research and development, and in STEM.

It’s not a huge industry, but for its relatively small size, the advanced industries pack a major “economic punch”:

“As of 2013, the nation’s 50 advanced industries employed 12.3 million US workers. That amounts to about 9 percent of total U.S. employment. And yet, even with this modest employment base, U.S. advanced industries produce $2.7 trillion in value added annually—17 percent of all U.S. gross domestic product (GDP).”

Advanced industries also provide high-quality economic opportunities for workers. Wages are rising sharply in the sector, and in 2013 the average advanced industries worker earned $90,000, nearly twice as much as the average worker outside the sector. But the researchers find the advanced industries are accessible, too: more than one-half of the sector’s workers possess less than a bachelor’s degree.

It’s not all great news, though. Yes, the advanced industries have grown, but the United States is still losing ground to other countries in several measures of innovation performance and capacity, like patents, for example. Plus, the report again finds that the United States is falling behind in producing STEM graduates. As a comparison, only 15 large US metro areas beat the global leader, Finland, in the share of STEM graduates as a proportion of the young adult population. Thirty-three large US metro areas fall behind Spain, which ranks 24th internationally.

So how do we sustain the advanced industries and keep the segment competitive and in the United States? Short-term workforce training is like a bandage. Instead, the report said sustaining the advanced industries long-term means increasing the STEM proficiency of Americans through the formal education system, starting early with universal prekindergarten.


Graph/The Brookings Institution

It also means getting creative—forging partnerships, adjusting hiring requirements, and thinking outside the box about ways to widen the channels that encourage people to enter these industries and give young people more options.

That sounds a lot like what we’re doing here in Pittsburgh. Both in and out of schools, kids throughout the region are getting the opportunity to experience STEM long before college or even high school.

Just one recent example: The Allentown Learning & Engagement Center recently hosted the Digital Corps for the second time. The students learned to manipulate code, learn basic machine functions, and build their own robots. As Amber Rooke, education coordinator for the Brashear Association, recently described in a post, one student who struggles in schools lit up when working with the materials, jumping ahead without needing further directions.

Additionally, the Chevron Corporation is investing in the region’s STEM pipeline through its Appalachian Partnership Initiative with the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation, RAND, and the Allegheny Conference on Community Development. It is supporting graduate students at Carnegie Mellon, for example, in a game-based learning project with students at Elizabeth Forward Middle School. The team is designing a game to teach kids about solar energy. The game, which centers on a touch-sensitive globe the Carnegie Mellon students built, requires kids to figure out how to keep the lights on in their adopted city 24/7 using only solar power.

We hope opportunities to make, tinker, and explore will give kids not only a base of STEM skills to build on, but excitement for and engagement in learning what’s possible for them both in and out of STEM careers.

If there’s anywhere that can make this happen, it’s Pittsburgh. But don’t ask just us. The report’s video highlights Aquion but also calls out the Pittsburgh region as a spot that epitomizes a strong segment of advanced industries.

“Places like Pittsburgh with their sophisticated technology assets and experienced workforces epitomize the kind of synergies a city can provide to a new company,” said Mark Muro, Brookings senior fellow and director of policy for the Metropolitan Policy Program.

Those same synergies are helpful to leverage for education, too—not only companies. Plus, as we’ve known all along, Pittsburgh has a culture of collaboration, innovation, and getting down to work.

“Even though the steel industry wound down over 20 years ago, those people are still here. That heritage is still here,” said Aquion CEO, Jay Whitacre, in the video. “It’s amazing how much we benefit from that.”


Don’t Overlook Manufacturing as a STEM Career

Fueled by reports of industry growth and a shortage of workers, kids are increasingly nudged toward careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM)—ranging from computer scientist positions to rocket scientist jobs at NASA.

But there’s another often overlooked route to lucrative STEM jobs: high-tech manufacturing. The route to these jobs—through community college or technical school—is more immediate (and cheaper) than training in many other fields. Modern manufacturing jobs usually don’t make it into the mainstream STEM discussion, but they should. The jobs are often rewarding, well paid, and don’t require a decade to secure.

The manufacturing jobs we’re talking about aren’t the Model-T assembly-line factories of yesteryear. Crain’s Chicago Business recently profiled a small manufacturing company that makes everything from spiral staircases to dining room tables. Before anyone touches the metal, however, architectural detailers use 3D scanners and computer-aided design (CAD) software to create projects digitally. Only approximately 30 percent of the firm’s time is spent fabricating products—the rest is spent designing and tweaking computers. The firm is located in Chicago, which recently picked up a $70 million dollar federal grant plus another $250 million in state and private money to build a digital manufacturing institute. The federal funding is through the Obama Administration’s push to bring manufacturing back to US shores.

In the coming years, employers in manufacturing and elsewhere will be searching for workers who have various CAD and computer skills. According to employment forecasts in a Georgetown University report, employers in 2020 will seek “cognitive skills such as communication and analytics from job applicants rather than physical skills traditionally associated with manufacturing.”

STEM careers that don’t require a bachelor’s degree, such as many manufacturing jobs, can pay well, too. A Brookings report aptly titled “The Hidden STEM Economy” found that a whopping one-half of all STEM jobs don’t require a four-year college degree. These jobs pay an average of $53,000 per year—10 percent higher than jobs with similar educational requirements.

Despite these revealing numbers, the stigma surrounding associate degrees or certificates is still hard to shake. Another Georgetown report found the United States hasn’t increased its sub-baccalaureate attainment since the Baby Boom era. Furthermore, we underinvest in the whole system. The Brookings report also says only one-fifth of the $4.3 billion spent annually by the federal government on STEM education and training supports sub-bachelor’s level training.

Some groups, however, are forging a path for youth.

Although they might not think of it this way, involving more kids in the maker movement is one way to introduce them to the idea of manufacturing. In fact, tinkering might be the first chance for kids to discover if making stuff even appeals to them.

Pittsburgh is leading the way, with all sorts of maker activities kids can explore while developing the critical thinking skills they need. For example, at Assemble—in Pittsburgh’s Garfield neighborhood, a largely low-income neighborhood on the city’s East End—kids and tweens are inventing pencils that squeak (much to teachers’ dismay, one can imagine) when circuits connect with skin. They’re inventing a robot that changes color when it becomes too hot or too cold. They’re also learning to code and make apps through the Digital Corps. The programs are so popular that older siblings use the excuse of “babysitting” their young siblings so they, too, can attend.

Resurging apprenticeship programs might be another way of encouraging kids to consider manufacturing careers. The Obama Administration recently allocated $100 million dollars to apprenticeship grants, some of which will go toward advanced manufacturing. Making the announcement at training-rich Community College of Allegheny County, Obama said that 87 percent of apprentices pin down a job after program completion, with an average starting salary of more than $50,000.

Entrepreneurship is another way to build the manufacturing ecosystem. Places such as Pittsburgh are tapping the wealth of local manufacturing talent to foster new startups and, in turn, provide future jobs. The Three Rivers Workforce Investment Board in the city is teaming up with Carnegie Mellon, TechShop, and a number of other organizations to train and reconnect people with manufacturing skills to manufacturing start-ups. The partnership aims to help link together entrepreneurs, engineers, unions, and manufacturers to capture Pennsylvania’s talent and to prevent manufacturing companies from heading overseas.

Back in Chicago, the Austin Polytechnical Academy is a unique partnership between a public school and more than 60 manufacturers. Now in its seventh year, the high school program trains teens and connects them with solid-paying jobs with the partnering manufacturers. The teens, most of whom are low-income African American youth, leave high school with a recognized certificate, a résumé that includes internships and on-the-job experience, college-prep coursework, and the soft skills employers like to see. The employers agree to help pay for their continuing education.

As 2012 grad Jeralmiah Harmon said recently on Vocalo’s Barbershop Show, “I graduated on a Saturday and I started working that Monday.”

Of course, not all 18-year-olds will want to kick off a manufacturing job, or any career, that quickly. That’s up to them. But giving them the chance to explore what manufacturing means in the 21st century can only sharpen how well they’re prepared for the demands of any job in the future.

Why We Should Prepare Our Daughters (and Our Sons) for Modern Manufacturing Jobs

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal pointed out that even though women are a bigger part of the overall workforce, they make up only 27 percent of the manufacturing workforce, down from down from 32 percent in the early 1990s.

“Women tend to be less interested in engineering than men, which is a big skill in manufacturing. Women also tend to take less math courses,” said Journal reporter James Hagerty. “Manufacturers are going to have to make the case to young women that manufacturing can be a very good career.”

A number of factors cause women to be less interested in manufacturing, one of the most important among them being perceptions of the field. Many people think manufacturing jobs involve heavy-duty physical labor in dark and sometimes dangerous factories. In her book, “Grace and Grit,” Lilly Ledbetter describes these kinds of conditions at the Goodyear tire factory where she worked throughout the 1970s. On top of workplace injuries, noxious chemicals, and unrelenting harassment, she discovered she was being paid thousands less than her male coworkers. Her lawsuit made it to the Supreme Court and was eventually the catalyst for the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.

That unwelcoming image of mid-century manufacturing has stuck around. But manufacturing today has changed a great deal since Ledbetter’s day. Women and men working in manufacturing today are critical to the innovation cycle. They design parts, operate robots, and act as key advisors on the practical aspects of new designs or processes. The work is highly skilled and often requires sophisticated computer and engineering knowledge.

Those specialized skills are the focus of the White House’s recently announced new public-private manufacturing hub in North Carolina. It’s the first in a series of institutes Obama has planned. This one is a group of businesses and universities in Raleigh that, using federal funding, will focus on connecting research with manufacturing. The idea is to apply semiconductor technology to developing energy efficient devices for cars, electronics, and motors.

Obama sees improving the manufacturing industry as key to raising middle class incomes. With certificate training, manufacturing salaries can start around $40,000. And as Hagerty pointed out, these jobs offer better pay and benefits on average than service jobs, particularly jobs in retail or food service, which tend to attract a lot of women.

But these middle-tier jobs often go unfilled because employers can’t find qualified applicants. In a recent Bloomberg Businessweek article Anthony P. Carnevale, an economist and head of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, said that even though the manufacturing sector will shrink by a million jobs over the next decade, it will still experience a huge labor shortfall as 2 million workers retire without enough new, trained workers to take their place.

One young women who may be poised to do just that is Sarah Hertzler, a high school junior in South Fayette, Pennsylvania. who fell in love with engineering after joining a club for girls interested in building rockets and robots.

“Sometimes when you think about engineering, you think of grease and nuts and bolts,” she told the Wall Street Journal. “But it’s about ideas and designing.”

Like many schools in the Pittsburgh region, South Fayette High School emphasizes computational thinking and creativity in its curriculum. It also gives students access to lots of technology. The region is ripe with opportunities for girls like Sarah—from Girls of Steel, Pittsburgh’s all-girls robotics team, to the Girls Math & Science Partnership, where girls meet with mentors and explore STEM careers.

And when it comes time to choose what kind of career to pursue, the work of the Pittsburgh Technology Council and others ensures they’ll have a world of STEM job options open to them.