Industrial leaders in southwest Michigan contend they can’t find qualified applicants to fill good-paying jobs that don’t necessarily require a college degree. Schools have sometimes been criticized for emphasizing the need for a four-year advanced degree. But this isn’t the case in the Vicksburg school district, said Greg Mills, industrial arts teacher.
This is Mills’ first year teaching in Vicksburg. But he has vast credentials in the real world and has brought those to the classroom. The fruits of his students’ labor was on display in a real-life “Shark Tank” session in February, with teams of students solving problems in design and engineering presented by five local industries.
Stryker, Denso, Eimo, American Axle, and Humphrey Products had needs on their plant floors and decided to give the student teams the chance to solve them. They pledged to incorporate the solutions where possible and sent representatives from each firm to view each team’s presentation of their solution in Vicksburg High School’s classroom.
The idea came from the experience of a Vicksburg student in a computerized manufacturing class. Daniel Shankleton was interning at Eimo two years ago. He presented an idea for a solution to a production line problem that had vexed Jim Williams, Eimo’s tooling supervisor. Williams realized that companies could benefit from young people’s ideas and a set of fresh eyes and creative minds, if given a chance. He turned to Jason Luke at Kalamazoo Regional Education Service Agency’s (KRESA). Luke, a former counselor at Vicksburg, is now in charge of Project Lead the Way (PLTW) for all schools in Kalamazoo County.
Project Lead the Way as part of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) is a world-wide program for students specializing in the trades, Mills said. He uses the program in his classes. But before he could be certified to teach the program in Vicksburg, he spent four intensive weeks in training last summer. He is an engineer and has spent many years in business and industry, lately with TH Plastics in Mendon. By utilizing PLTW software, he is able to track each student’s work on their individual computers every step of their work. It’s his roadmap for a curriculum, he pointed out. The students still have to show their work on paper and he signs off on it, he said.
“Kids just eat it up, to think that their ideas could be put to good use,” Luke said. Students participating in this exercise in Vicksburg were graded by Mills on each step of their process of problem solving utilizing their design and engineering skills to come up with real world solutions, he said. Mills is aided in class by his assistant, Steve Mitchell, a former process engineer from TH Plastics.
“We allow kids to explore. Some love to paint, some like to build, and I tell them it’s OK to make mistakes, so long as they learn from them. They are learning to find solutions, understanding how industry really works, then they can move on to another problem inside of class, while having lots of fun, getting good grades, and learning skills that will benefit them once they get out on the job,” Mills said.