This article originally appeared on Industry Week. Guest blog post by Jack E. Pfunder. Jack is the president and CEO of the Manufacturers Resource Center, a nonprofit organization partially funded by the U.S. Department of Commerce’s NIST MEP Program, as well as the State of Pennsylvania’s Department of Community and Economic Development.
The manufacturing industry has drastically changed in recent years, yet the public’s perception has not. Manufacturers Resource Center (MRC), part of the Pennsylvania Manufacturing Extension Partnership (PA MEP) and the MEP National Network, found a solution. After talking to stakeholders throughout Pennsylvania, MRC confirmed what it suspected: manufacturing’s image needed to be addressed and change begun with students before they enter high school. But MRC still struggled with how to reach the younger generation and get them interested in manufacturing careers.
In 2013, MRC decided to create a student video contest that would help to change perceptions and attitudes in Pennsylvania about the manufacturing industry, while increasing awareness of career paths in manufacturing. Through a grant from the Pennsylvania department of Community & Economic Development, (DCED)—and a partnership with MRC, Da Vinci Science Center, Lehigh Career and Technical Institute (LCTI) and Lehigh Valley Workforce Board—the “What’s So Cool about Manufacturing” video contest was born.
Middle school students team up with a manufacturer in their community to create a video profile of that manufacturer. The video serves to showcase what the manufacturer produces, how they make their products, and why the company is a great place to work.
Educators help develop a media training curriculum that teaches students the media technology skills necessary to create an educational media message. Participating middle schools received camera equipment, software, and professional guidance as students and teacher coaches learned to script, record, and edit their video stories. Students, working in teams, not only learn technical skills, but also critical career readiness skills that are often harder to teach—like collaboration, leadership, and problem-solving—that manufacturers need among their employees’ skillsets.
Once the student team finishes the video, it is reviewed and approved by the manufacturer. All of the videos are then added to the website, www.WhatsSoCool.org, for three days of online viewing and voting by the public. The video with the most votes receives the Viewers’ Choice Award. Additionally, a panel of judges determine the best videos in a variety of other categories. At the end of the voting and review period, students, parents, educators, manufacturing leaders, community sponsors, local legislators, and project partners gather for an award ceremony to announce and acknowledge winning teams.
The real-world, project-based learning that ‘What’s So Cool About Manufacturing’ imparts has made the contest wildly popular with students, educators, and manufacturers. Students are excited to work with and compete against their peers. Students are able to interact with a broad range of professionals, from executives to marketers to shop floor workers.
Educators and manufacturers value the real world experience the contest gives students and the first-hand exposure to jobs that students may not have experienced otherwise.
One Pennsylvania teacher had this to say: “Our team is so incredibly appreciative of the recognition they received. It was an amazing and well-planned event. This experience will be with them for the rest of their lives. Your team and this project has made a huge impact on these students, their families, and the entire school!”
During the contest’s first year, 19 schools participated. Students’ video submissions received 123,000 votes within three days. Now in its sixth year, what began as one regional contest has grown to include 250 middle schools with 15 contests across Pennsylvania. The videos are projected to get 1,000,000 votes in the upcoming 2019 voting period. The contest format has also been adopted by groups in 11 other states.
Recently, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf weighed in on the contest by sharing this statement, “This administration has placed an incredible emphasis on developing Pennsylvania’s manufacturing workforce,” Governor Wolf said. “One of the best ways to do that is by getting the next generation excited about these careers. The ‘What’s So Cool About Manufacturing’ student video contest has steadily grown over the years. We’re excited to see it continue to grow in the years ahead supported by this funding.”
Local technical school enrollment has dramatically increased since the contest began in 2013. LCTI greatly increased their STEM course enrollment in the first two years after the contest and are expanding their machine shop with new machines to accommodate another 50 percent increase. LCTI is also getting a new welding department and doubling their mechatronics (hybrid of mechanical, electrical, and computer engineering) program.
Bethlehem Area Vocational-Technical School (BAVTS), which had discontinued their machining program due to low enrollment, now has 35 machining students in the program and has upgraded their welding program.
The What’s So Cool About Manufacturing Program has sparked the imagination of middle school students across the state of Pennsylvania. MRC and Pennsylvania manufacturers are changing the way the world sees manufacturing, while educating future industry leaders. The partnerships between industry and education as a result of the contest has opened new channels of communication. And with increased interaction, companies will now be able to communicate directly with educators about the skills that are needed as jobs and the industry continue to evolve.