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FlexFactor® Students Launch New Product Ideas at the US Space and Rocket Center

By Emily McGrath, Deputy Director of Workforce Development, NextFlex

Students from Hazel Green and Columbia High Schools recently presented new product ideas during the inaugural FlexFactor Final Pitches at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, AL. These final pitches represented the culmination of the pilot FlexFactor program that was supported by Calhoun Community College and Drake State Community and Technical College in partnership with Boeing, the Alabama Community College System (ACCS) and NextFlex. Thirty-seven students participated in this initial pilot, representing two classes from different high schools in the area. Altogether, they pitched eight new product ideas that wowed teachers and industry partners alike.

The FlexFactor program serves as an outreach mechanism to high school students that raises awareness of the education and career pathways leading to the advanced manufacturing sector. Through experiential and problem-based learning techniques, student teams actively engage with advanced manufacturing environments that challenge them to recognize their potential to participate in research, design, production, supply chain, business development, sales, and marketing as potential career choices in the future.

During the program, small teams of students are asked to identify a real-world problem, conceptualize an advanced hardware solution to address it, and build a business model around it. After five weeks of research, customer discovery work, and immersion activities with both industry and higher education, students present their product concepts to a panel of educators and industry mentors “Shark Tank” style. Through the program’s immersive approach to learning and careful balance of structured and unstructured activities, students are drawn into the exciting world of advanced manufacturing technologies and careers.

Educators and industry mentors ask questions following a product pitch during the FlexFactor Finals in Huntsville, AL.

FlexFactor Program Manager and Regional Director of Workforce and Economic Development, Dr. Courtney Taylor experienced this transformation first-hand as students progressed through the program. “Watching the participants come alive as they toured Boeing and began to understand exactly what happens inside an advanced manufacturing facility and how it relates to their lives was incredibly rewarding. Working with students as they began to see a future for themselves as college students at Calhoun or Drake when they were, in some cases, lost before, will stay with me for a very long time.”

Nalani Hogue, a tenth grader in Wes Patterson’s Career Prep class at Hazel Green High School explained, “Normally I am drawn to the arts because that’s what I grew up around, so I never thought of myself as an engineer or going into a technology field. When I first started the FlexFactor program I was standoffish because I wasn’t interested in advanced manufacturing. But after we got to tour Boeing and see all the different products they create, I realized there are lots of different types of engineers and [that] engineering involves a lot of art. It opened up my mind to help me realize what I can do in my future and see that I could be a part of this sector.”

As Tina Watts, Community Investor for Boeing Global Engagement explained to the audience during the Final Pitch, “Through this program, a spark has been ignited and students see that they can be a part of that work. Whether you know it or not, each generation helps shape the next. As knowledge is passed on it seems to increase exponentially and what you learn today you will soon teach others. It is a process that Boeing supports, and a process for which we never lose our appreciation.”

Educators and industry mentors listen intently to new product ideas presented by Hazel Green and Columbia High School students.

Through the adoption of NextFlex’s flagship workforce development program, FlexFactor, Boeing and ACCS have made an investment in the local community that will connect people, infrastructure, education, research, design, and production across an entire ecosystem. “To have joined with Boeing for an inaugural event designed for and with Alabama’s next generation workforce was a perfect alignment of the training that Alabama’s community colleges strive to achieve every day. We are proud of the partnerships we have with high schools and industries who count on us as a resource for innovative and integral workforce development. We’re honored for the opportunity to participate in such an elite event with Boeing and the Huntsville and Madison area high schools,” explained Jeff Lynn, Vice Chancellor of the Alabama Community College System.

By connecting local students with high skill, high wage, high demand job opportunities in the Huntsville-Madison area, this initiative will recruit much-needed talent into the advanced manufacturing sector. “We have a real need today for people with electronics and additive manufacturing interests and skills who could help us execute on deployment of flexible hybrid electronics for all types of applications.  There is a tremendous opportunity for FlexFactor to be the connector that brings new people into technology and rewarding careers that students have never considered before,” explained Robert Smith, a Technical Fellow at Boeing Research and Technology.

Students are all smiles after receiving certificates of completion for five weeks of learning about advanced manufacturing and entrepreneurship in the NextFlex FlexFactor program.

NextFlex is proud to work with forward-thinking partners that can visualize and create the future of advanced manufacturing and we look forward to helping FlexFactor expand in Alabama.  For more information about how you can bring FlexFactor to your community, visit the FlexFactor webpage or contact Emily McGrath at NextFlex: emcgrath@nextflex.us.

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