Manufacturing tradition can bloom again with STEM education


Some of my smartest students were the ones training for the technical trades. I will never forget the Black woman who was already working as a sound engineer but wanted her degree in the field to shore up her qualifications. In class, she wrote about loving sound engineering because the work of creating and refining sound required her to use her brain. She was a refreshing change from students who were unclear on what they wanted to do with their studies. 

Michigan has a generational history of people doing technical work. Primarily grounded in automobile manufacturing, it did not involve most workers. Most employees used only their bodies. Then came change — and anger: The gravy train departed the station without us. First, we blamed competition with Japan, then robotics, with poor effect. But now there are signs that Michigan is moving on from the great hurt. Michigan seeks to revive our manufacturing culture for the digital age.

My view is encouraged by the Michigan Labor and Economic Opportunity Department’s STEM Advisory Council. This council’s purpose is to foster learning and innovation, and to create a STEM culture. STEM is science, technology, electronics and math. The council awarded grants to 13 schools for STEM education. The awards totaled $237, 640, and the average per school was less than $20,000. Actually $18,230.76, if you think in the exact way technical people think. Actual award amounts ranged from $20,000 to $10,309. 

These are modest awards considering the council has a budget of $3.05 million, and the State Education Department allocates about $9,000 per student. But money is not the point. Change is. Michigan is moving on. 

Change brings a new lingo. Manufacturing is known as “making,” and people who work in the industry are “makers.” Most libraries today host a “maker space” with sexy machines like 3D printers. Education approaches are renamed. One is 3-P: Place-, project- and/or problem-based learning. Language is art, and mixing art up with technology produces STEAM, created by adding an A to STEM, for art. 

Numbers are the language of the technical world, and I can relate.  I am the third of 13 children. “Star Trek: Picard” fans know that phrasing means I am involved with something bigger than myself, like the Starfleet character Seven of Nine 

Education is about the future. And the future is computers. This sharp focus on the digital environment in our state will boost the college-going effort known as Sixty by 30. It means having 60% of Michigan residents earning an education certificate or degree higher than high school by the year 2030. In this effort, the Michigan College Access Network effort targets low-income students, students of color and first-generation students. 

Some people wonder, is college worth the debt? And time? Bill Gates dropped out of college. Look at him.  

Here’s the scoop on Gates, according to Malcom Gladwell, who wrote the book “Outlier.” He found that it takes 10,000 hours to get good at something. Gates got his hours in a high school room outfitted with these new things called computers, put there by his mama. She was a computer company VP. 

Parents are key, Michigan author Veronica Wilkerson-Johnson wrote in her new book, “A Sparkle in Their Eyes: Raising Talented Diverse Students in STEAM Careers,” about how to get a good base for technical education. But, she writes, “We as parents do not have to be a Ph.D. or world-renowned STEM or STEAM scholar to raise one.”

Her book lays out the attitudes, behaviors and programs that can shepherd a student into the careers of the future, but parents need to move with revolutionary speed. “Now,” she writes, “is the time for your students to become a part of the growing number of students of color and women as they obtain college degrees in STEM/STEAM and pursue those professions.” 

Michigan is so close. The state reports that we have the fourth largest engineering, design and development workforce in the nation, with over 113,000 employed in related industries in 2020. This is the legacy of the automobile industry, which so many people in Michigan built together. Now, if we don’t fight the race and class wars all over again to decide who gets the opportunities, we will progress. 

STEM education is the base for additional training. A New York Times report explains the need for microchip technicians to work in Arizona, where a huge microchip manufacturing plant is being built in anticipation of “a semiconductor manufacturing boom” and the “billions of dollars that the federal government is funneling into this sector.” 

In some cases, that training is minimum — just 10 days — according to the Times. However, skeptical reader comments complained that such slight preparation positions workers for the assembly line heave-ho when they outlive their training.  A reader from Michigan also threw shade on the sincerity of the company because Arizona “is almost out of water.” And you need water to make things. Read your license plate: Michigan is the Great Lakes State.  

It’s all about learning, people. Do not be afraid of numbers involved in technology. Or view science and math classes as too hard. Spending two years on education after high school is not too long. Put impatience and giving up in frustration in the rear-view mirror. The state of Michigan needs its people to step-up to the educational challenge. 



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