High demand for skilled workers, coupled with low interest among potential future employees, could make or break American industry.
Is there a chance that math and science teachers could make a difference?
Recent polls conducted by manufacturers’ groups indicate that, despite a growing demand for skilled employees, more than half of all teenagers have no interest in pursuing manufacturing careers.
Old ideas – often shared across the generations by those who remember dark, dirty factories of the past – contradict the real promise of opportunity in modern manufacturing.
A new public television documentary, Working Class: Competition Drives Innovation! Why Science Matters, helps dispel myths regarding modern manufacturing.
What skills are needed in today’s manufacturing environments?
According to research conducted by Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute, “Today’s modern manufacturing workers need a variety of skills. Strong problem-solving skills can equate to the ability to autonomously adjust robots and production systems real-time. Math skills can translate into applied competencies in measurement and spatial reasoning. Technical skills have practical application in areas such as metallurgy, and technical system operations such as fluid power electrical controls. Understanding algorithms and advanced computing can translate into the ability to develop advanced technologies such as 3D-modeling and advanced robotics. Overall, as product development and manufacturing systems become more interwoven and cycle times shorten, workers need to have higher levels of STEM and analytical skills in order to influence design changes as well as production efficiency.”
Educators understand the challenges behind the development of problem-solving skills, math skills, technical skills, algorithms and advanced computing, higher levels of STEM and analytical skills. Industry leaders understand the consequences of unmet challenges.
In record numbers, baby boomers are vacating skilled positions – machinists, operators and technicians – that account for more than 50 percent of manufacturing jobs. What kind of prospect pool is waiting to replace the knowledge and experience the aging workers will take with them into retirement?
There is also a deeper fear that a shortage of highly specialized scientists and design engineers could slow down new product development and hinder the implementation of new manufacturing processes.
In the era when “STEM” is a buzzword in education, we need to make students more aware of how their academic classes can prepare them for future careers.
“In terms of manufacturing, it’s understanding the process. It’s all problem solving and critical thinking … and students don’t get that real experience until they’re faced with a challenge.”
Kelly B. Butzler, an associate professor of chemistry at Pennsylvania College of Technology who now works with high schools involved with the Penn College NOW dual enrollment program, remembers learning the importance of labs when she worked as a ninth grade physical science teacher at the start of her career.
“The teachers I worked with were very, very innovative in the way they taught,” Kelly said. “They taught the lab first, and then they followed up with looking at the data. Then they followed that up with the concepts. It was a brilliant way of teaching it, because then the students are like, ‘Oh, I understand that concept because I just interacted with it. Now I have experience with that concept.’ It stuck.”
Today, Kelly teaches chemistry to college students planning to work in manufacturing, health care and engineering – all areas in which science makes an impact.
“I think the most important part of science – whether it’s physics or geology or chemistry or biology – is really understanding the thought process that goes through to solve a problem,” she explains. “In terms of manufacturing, it’s understanding the process. It’s all problem solving and critical thinking … and students don’t get that real experience until they’re faced with a challenge.”
Some students bring real-world challenges into Kelly’s chemistry classes. She recalls a day when plastics and engineering technology students began a classroom discussion about compostable plastics bottles.
“I love learning from my students because they’ll come in and tell me these new innovative ideas … They were talking about recyclable or compostable plastic bottles (basically water bottles that you can put in the compost). I asked them, ‘How is this working? Because if they’re biodegradable, eventually in the store they’re going to sit there and they’re going to just start dissolving themselves.’”
“They said, ‘No, it has a certain shelf life.’ They have to make sure that after a certain time they get them off the shelves, because they won’t stay there forever. That’s the kind of thing our students are actually working on – new, biodegradable plastics and things that … instead of just going into the landfill, they’re able to either biodegrade or melt down or dissolve, and basically it’s not going to affect the environment.”
In order for students to become innovators, they must embrace the scientific method that teachers like Kelly Butzler reinforce regularly in classroom discussions.
“When my students talked to me about the biodegradable plastics, the first thing I asked them was, ‘What’s out there in the literature? What have people done? Where do they do this? What do they use to manufacture things?’ Because the literature, and what other scientists have done, helps our students try to figure out what they can do differently. That whole process of reading the literature … it’s the foundation of whatever they’re going to end up doing. Looking at it and saying, ‘Okay, where’s the chemistry behind this and how did this researcher have those chemicals interact to form a product? What if I change just one thing on it, what’s going to happen?’ That would start their hypothesis and then, of course, their experimentation on manufacturing a new product.”
Kelly confidently teaches her students the importance of learning how to think, analyze and solve problems “because you’re going to be using those skills every day.”
Making students aware of opportunities and helping them connect classroom learning to their own potential for success is important to maintain a skilled workforce for future generations.
Why Science Matters Art Challenge deadline Dec. 1
Initiatives like the Telly Award-winning Working Class public television documentary series invite students, educators and parents to learn more about 21st century career opportunities. Tune in to the latest film released in the series, Working Class: Competition Drives Innovation! Why Science Matters, and you’ll meet Kelly Butzler and other teachers who are inspiring tomorrow’s success stories today.
Working Class also is seeking young artists to take our Why Science Matters K-12 Art Challenge. Deadline for entries is Dec. 1. Follow the link for details.