Renewing the manufacturing sector of the U.S. economy has long been a concern for the nation’s communities, schools and policymakers; the state of manufacturing in the country became an even more pronounced issue during last year’s presidential election campaign. A coalition of educational and manufacturing experts released a report Monday making suggestions to ensure that advanced manufacturing students are prepared for seismic industry shifts.
An Expert Education Team assembled by the Lightweight Innovations for Tomorrow, the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities and the National Center for Manufacturing Sciences, released the first of the six schedule reports on Monday, calling for higher ed institutions to find ways to adjust their curricula. The report said it is incumbent that students become better equipped to take on manufacturing jobs that are concerned with lightweighting technology and processes.
“Lightweighting” refers to the process of creating and utilizing materials that can make manufactured products such as vehicles lighter, which can offer a host of ancillary benefits. The approach has impacted a host of manufacturing industries, from automobiles to how material goods are cartoned and shipped.
The report stressed that while manufacturers had previously been siloed between “technicians,” or employees who learned their trade via apprenticeships and engineers who underwent extensive university study. The old paradigm, the report asserted, no longer applied.
“If community and technical colleges and universities are not incorporating the evolving needs of industry into their curriculum and training opportunities, their students will not be prepared for the world of innovation in advanced manufacturing,” the report read.
Jim Woodell, a vice president for economic development and community engagement at APLU, helped develop the report. He said the Educator team, which included professors from the University of Kentucky, the Colorado School of Mines and the University of Tennessee Knoxville, among other schools, was selected for both their knowledge of technology involved and their ability to “translate” suggestions to colleges and universities.
“What the Expert Educator Team is doing is something we don’t often do when we develop new technologies, which is have that translational conversation early in the process,” he said. “We know it’s going to be very important that education experiences include more work and learn opportunities...we need to have more people learning in the context of which they’re going to learn these things to properly develop the skills.”
The team assembled in February of this year to view presentations and conduct discussions on how schools can better prepare students in a number of areas LIFT focused on. For each area, the educators prepared essential competencies that two-year community colleges and four-year universities that could student proficiency in the focus areas, as well as two-year and four-year schools, as well as schools and manufacturing industries, could find more collaboration opportunities. The key focus areas the report focused on included changing curricula to burnish skills in integrated computational engineering, as well as metamorphic manufacturing, in which digital technology conducts the operation of a blacksmith, manipulating metal at high temperatures. The group also proposed sample curricula benchmarks for distortion control, which involves the prevention of the undue warping of lightweight metals under high heat, and thin-wall aluminum die casting, which can allow manufacturers to build materials like vehicles and mobile devices with lighter parts in comparison to heftier, bulkier metals.
Additionally, the team suggested ways in which visiting professors and students could access the LIFT Learning Lab, located at the LIFT headquarters in Detroit, MI. LIFT already operates teacher training as a part of many of its education initiatives. The report suggested that visits as short as one or two days could be beneficial for teachers and student learners, and also suggested short-term tech residencies for students or anyone undergoing certification.
“An approach like this could be brought to scale if LIFT were to approach the National Science Foundation (NSF), potentially in partnership with Manufacturing USA or other members of the Manufacturing USA network, to spread this model across the manufacturing institutes and potentially other technology and innovation hubs,” the report read.
Interested students have been utilizing tech companies’ laboratories with increased frequency in recent years, both in higher ed and K-12 institutions, as tech companies realize the need to ensure students are appropriately prepared for rapidly changing industries. For example, Oracle is funding the construction of a high school that will emphasize design thinking and evidence-based problem solving, as well as an incubator program and design lab, while San Antonio tech companies partnered with the local school district and the University of Texas San Antonio to create a high school campus focused on filling tech gaps. Woodell said the APLU was engaged in its own robust outreach to K-12 and college students throughout the country, but that the report would hopefully spur a wider conversation on how schools construct manufacturing curricula.
“It’s about how we go about employing the education programs themselves. It can’t just be about the content of the curriculum changing, it has to be how we do curriculum development,” he said. “We have to be more agile about how we think about curriculum."