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FlexFactor® Opens Doors for New Kinds of Students

By Emily McGrath, Deputy Director of Workforce Development, Education, and Training, NextFlex

One of our 2018 goals for FlexFactor, NextFlex’s project-based learning program in entrepreneurship and technology for high school students, is to broaden its reach to new student segments. Already this has been accomplished in two exciting ways. First, a class of 8th grade students participated in a version of FlexFactor that focused on optimizing a flexible version of an Arduino® (an open-source programmable microcontroller board) to develop new FHE-enabled product ideas designed to solve a human performance or health monitoring problem. The second new version of FlexFactor is called “Balance in STEM,” which is designed to encourage diversity in advanced manufacturing career awareness and education pathways. Both pilots of the new FlexFactor versions were extremely well received by students, teachers and industry mentors.

FlexFactor for Middle Schoolers

We’ve often heard that early exposure to STEM-based opportunities greatly increases the chance that students can be influenced to pursue STEM-based careers, which lead to skills desperately needed in the 21st century workforce in the U.S. In January eighth grade students from a Dartmouth Middle School (San Jose, CA) Electrical Engineering class enjoyed a visit from NextFlex senior engineering manager Wilfried Bair. The students had just completed a learning module on the rigid version of the Arduino, but when Wilfried showed them the flexible version, they immediately began to see opportunities. One student suggested an FHE-based adhesive patch that could detect irregular heartbeats in elderly patients. “This product will help people susceptible to heart disease and will decrease the risk for patients,” explained student Elliot Berman, adding that he enjoyed the project, saying “we get to be exposed to this new technology, and apply our ideas in physical form.” Classmate Tate Manley added, “It’s really interesting to see this new technology, work on it first-hand, and expand it with our own knowledge.”

Through this hands-on activity, students were exposed to next generation technologies that will enable electronics to be manufactured in thin, lightweight form factors that are flexible and conformable. Such technologies will allow the integration of electronics on vehicles, buildings, infrastructure, automobiles, clothing, and the human body, in ways not currently possible with rigid, bulky electronic systems. At the end of the program, student Jackson McIntyre commented, “I’d like to do electrical engineering, so this opportunity gave me a lot of information about the field

Three students from that class attended the Flex Conference in Monterey, CA on Wednesday, February 14th. As special invited guests of NextFlex, the students presented their application ideas for a flexible version of Arduino-enabled product to conference attendees at the NextFlex booth. Earlier in the week, NextFlex announced that we had successfully developed a flexible version of the Arduino Mini in partnership with the Air Force Research Laboratory. So, perhaps it wasn’t a surprise that Dominic Pajak from Arduino visited the NextFlex booth at the same time as the students, who were thrilled to meet him and talk about their experiences in learning about the Arduino.” Brynt Parmeter, Director of Workforce Development at NextFlex, noted, “Workforce programs are the bridge between education and economic development and are critical to ensuring a competitive future for both prospective employees and companies. We consistently find that students are thrilled with the opportunity to interact with industry mentors and seeing new technology first-hand.”

Arduino VP Meets FlexFactor Students at 2018FLEX

8th grade FlexFactor students present their Arduino innovations to an Arduino VP at 2018FLEX.

FlexFactor Sprint: Balance in STEM

Students from a Wilcox High School (Santa Clara, CA) biology class participated in the first FlexFactor Sprint: Balance in STEM program at NextFlex on Thursday, February 15th. During the event, students gowned up and toured the NextFlex Cleanroom where they observed and demoed cutting edge flexible technology processes associated with the research, development, and production of flexible hybrid electronics (FHE). NextFlex Fabrication Lab Process Equipment Integration Manager Tom Amato and his team provided demonstrations of printing, assembly, and testing procedures for flexible circuits.

NextFlex – Wilcox High School Students Studying Printed Substrates at the NextFlex Technology Hub

Wilcox High School students discussing FHE-enabled product ideas and business models.

After the clean room tour, students worked in small teams to identify a human health or performance monitoring problem, conceptualize a hardware product to address the problem, and identify a target market for their product. Student teams were guided by mentors from government, med-tech, computer science, legal, and financial sectors. After the Industry Advisor Working Group, teams pitched their concepts in 3-minute presentations to a panel of representatives, who asked questions and provided feedback on the ideas. Product concepts included a dehydration-sensing patch, a portable projector capable of projecting on any surface, and smart tooth whitening device, among others.

NextFlex Deputy Director of Workforce Development Emily McGrath noted, “NextFlex is proud to be actively involved in getting more young women and underrepresented groups into this game-changing technology sector.”

Wilcox High School students earned FlexFactor Certificates of Completion