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Boeing Grant Bolsters New Program to Benefit Local Students this Spring

By Kendyl Hollingsworth, Madison County Record

MADISON COUNTY — A $250,000 grant from Boeing will help provide for the second expansion of a national program into Madison County that will aim to help area students develop skills to become successful contributors to the advanced manufacturing workforce.

The program coming to Madison County, called “FlexFactor,” is a partnership between NextFlex and the Alabama Community College System. NextFlex is also called “America’s Flexible Hybrid Electronics Manufacturing Institute” and was founded in part by Boeing in 2015, according to Brynt Parmeter, director of workforce development at NextFlex.

In late 2016, the company came up with the program to address a need they saw with students in the advanced manufacturing field.

“We recognized that high schools, colleges, and manufacturing companies needed help engaging students with careers in advanced manufacturing and the education pathways needed to get there,” Parmeter said.

Thus, FlexFactor was born. NextFlex created the program and tested it with one high school, one college, and one company. Since then, Parmeter said nearly 3,000 students across the United States have participated in the program. Soon, Madison County students will help that number grow.

Parmeter said that as a founding member, Boeing “has had a front-row seat to the development of the program” since it began. After seeing some of the success the FlexFactor program was having in other areas, a Huntsville-area senior engineer at Boeing approached NextFlex about bringing it to Madison County. With both Boeing and the Alabama Community College System on board, the program is set to launch in spring 2019.

“It only took about 6 months from decision point to implementation, including the alignment of the partners,” Parmeter said.

When the program is implemented, a FlexFactor project manager will work with participating schools in coordinating a multi-week program that supports an existing class. These classes do not have to be of a certain subject and can range anywhere from English and economics to fashion and environmental design.

According to a news release from NextFlex, students in the program will have the opportunity to learn firsthand how various advanced materials and products can combine to work together to create “innovative solutions” to a wide range of problems. The program works to accomplish this by familiarizing students with the related technology and helping them come to know about all the opportunities that are out there in the field of advanced manufacturing.

“To achieve our goals, we need the ideas and energy that come from engaging with the workforce of tomorrow,” said Robert Smith, Ph.D., a technical fellow with Boeing Research and Technology, in the news release. “Through the FlexFactor program and the support of the Alabama Community College System, along with J.F. Drake State Community and Technical College and Calhoun Community Colleges, Boeing and the rest of the North Alabama industrial community will benefit from the innovation and excitement that will come from students in this high-tech corridor.”

Not only will the project manager arrange all activities for the class to include engagements and collaborations with colleges and companies, but they also provide all program-related materials for both teachers and students. The teacher will help students to follow guidelines and meet certain milestones for the project, as well as incorporate more learning objectives specific to their topic of study.

“The FlexFactor project manager works with the classroom instructor in a well-defined and naturally aligned division of labor,” Parmeter added.

A few elements the program may add to the classroom could relate to entrepreneurship, education and career familiarization through a project-based learning activity.

Parmeter explained that the initial term of the program is three years, but it could remain in the county “as long as there is a demand for it beyond that timeframe.”

“The Alabama Community College System is committed to providing the education and training needed to ensure that all Alabamians have a path to a great career,” said Jeff Lynn, vice chancellor Workforce and Economic Development for the Alabama Community College System, in the news release. “We are proud to partner with Boeing to bring the NextFlex FlexFactor project to high school students in the Huntsville-Madison County region. Through this public-private partnership, we will be able to inspire, recruit, and prepare the future generation to fulfill the advanced technology career pathways our young people need to lead Alabama throughout the 21st century.”

Other areas that have implemented the program are San Jose, California, and Cleveland, Ohio.

“Results from the program have been amazing to witness in a variety of locations,” Parmeter said.

Dozens of high school teachers and classes across five school districts in San Jose have completed the program, and in Cleveland, Parmeter said the program grew from 17 to a whopping 700 students in just one year.

Through the program, Parmeter said students can realize that they have the power to come up with solutions to the various social, environmental, and health issues in the world.

“This program helps young people see their future, understand the pathways to get there and have the confidence to take the necessary steps along that journey,” Parmeter said. “We’re proud to witness the amazing value our young people bring to their communities as this program grows over time.”