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Engaging Middle School Students with FlexFactor®

By Emily McGrath, Deputy Director of Workforce Development, NextFlex

NextFlex just concluded two iterations of its new one-day pilot program – FlexFactor Sprint: Balance in STEM for Middle School. This new program was launched with students from two Union School District schools: Dartmouth Middle School and Union Middle School, and it provides a means of engaging younger students with next generation technologies and STEM-based education and career pathways, thereby catalyzing a diverse group of future industry leaders.

This special version of FlexFactor was created to bring focus to the importance of early engagement when seeking to attract a diverse range of youth to the advanced manufacturing sector. Denise Clay, Union School District Superintendent explains, “The younger the child, the more open they are to possibilities. They are less constrained by the word ‘can’t,’ and by empowering children as young as 8 or 10 to take risks and try new things, we capture their curiosity and set them up for a mindset that encourages them to think creatively. We try to inspire them to first see beyond the boundaries that are so often set in their teenage years.”

FlexFactor provides an ideal framework to capture the imagination of younger students. We urge them to innovate and take risks while teaching important business and communication concepts that highlight the breadth of opportunities in STEM fields. The program’s project-based and student-led learning approach allows small teams to focus on areas of their own interest, while remaining true to the core imperatives of technology, entrepreneurship, education, and career pathways imparted in the standard four-week FlexFactor program.

Over the course of the day, teams work to identify a societal problem, conceptualize a hardware device to address the problem, and identify a target market for the product concept. At the end of the day, each team presents a 3-minute product concept pitch in a “shark tank-style” setting for a panel of industry representatives. In addition, students got to “gown up” for a guided tour of the NextFlex cleanroom and its cutting-edge flexible technology equipment. Students got hands-on by printing, curing and testing their own flexible circuits made with conductive ink. These flexible circuits became the inspiration for their hardware product concepts. On his experience, Union Middle Schooler, Owen, said, “The clean room was a really fun place to work because there were all types of 3-D printers and friendly people there to help. When I first heard about it, I thought it would be really complicated. It turns out it’s a really simple process. You just need some really expensive machines!”

Through this activity, students are exposed to the vast range of professional opportunities in the advanced manufacturing sector. Skills needed for a career in a STEM field are revealed in a way that is appealing and fun, where student teams address a wide range of real world problems – from cancer treatment and head trauma to waste management and lunch lines. The conceptualized hardware solutions developed by students often feature an incredible array of revolutionary technologies including advanced functional fabrics, Internet of Things devices, cloud technology, augmented reality, flexible hybrid electronics, and more.

FlexFactor equips students with 21st-century skills that can advance their impending career potential and influence their education pathways to help them get there. Judgement, adaptability, research, problem solving, critical thinking, creative reasoning, teamwork, and leadership are all core components of this innovative approach to preparing individuals for a bright future. As evidenced by this latest group of middle school students, the scope of their problem areas, the range of innovative solutions, the breadth of embedded technology, and their well-presented pitches made clear the astounding capacity of this age group to grasp the power and application potential of emerging technologies.

NextFlex Balance in STEM

Balance in STEM students from Dartmouth Middle School gowning up to tour the cleanroom and make their own flexible circuits.

NextFlex Union Middle School Students

Union Middle School students conceptualizing a technology product solution for a human health problem.

NextFlex certificates of completion for Dartmouth Middle School Balance in STEM students.

Certificates of completion for Dartmouth Middle School Balance in STEM students.