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Middle School FlexFactor® Sprints – Quarantine Style

By Mikayla Ridi, Workforce Development Program Manager, NextFlex

It is no secret that middle school students bring high energy and enthusiasm to their classrooms. Their natural curiosity and passion for discovery makes them an incredibly rewarding age group to work with for any teacher, mentor, or coach. NextFlex has worked with middle school students for several years now, and every year they impress us with their zeal and creativity. We have had the great pleasure to work with two outstanding teachers this spring, Pam Rissmann and Tracy Brown, and their enthusiastic students at Dartmouth Middle School in San Jose, CA.

Due to limited time availability, middle schools favor FlexFactor® “Sprints,” an abbreviated version of our full FlexFactor program, designed to create the same high impact, immersive learning environment for middle school students. In the sprints, five weeks of activities are condensed into 3-6 hours where students are challenged to identify a real-world problem, conceptualize an advanced hardware solution, build a business model around the product, and pitch their idea to a small panel of professionals. During the program students are immersed in the exciting world of advanced manufacturing where they explore new technologies, application spaces, and manufacturing processes.

After experiencing success in converting the full FlexFactor program to a virtual platform early in 2020, our team wanted to do the same thing for middle school students with the FlexFactor Sprint. We were a little unsure about how to capture the energy, collaboration, and creativity that drive the in-person program into a virtual forum but decided to give it a try. Our goal was to reach more students virtually during a time when students, teachers, and parents alike are struggling with online learning. To alleviate Zoom fatigue, the program was redesigned to include three 2-hour segments each delivered over a week and a half. To our excitement (and relief) students arrived at each segment with cameras on, smiles on their faces, and endless questions about the potential of emerging technologies.

As expected, the most impactful part of the program was the virtual manufacturing tour led by industry partners. These tours, showcasing next-generation technologies, high-tech manufacturing equipment, and innovative new products, never fail to spark wonder and excitement. The tours also gave students the opportunity to interact with industry professionals and ask questions such as: Why do you like the company you work for? What cool products are you working on now? How can I work for this company after college?

FF Sprint Image

Example product idea from a Dartmouth Middle School student

As student teams collaborated to work through complex challenges with the help of FlexFactor coaches and industry partners, they were able to see for themselves how STEM-based skills apply to real world problems. We are delighted to report that the student teams came up with some of the most innovative product ideas we’ve seen yet, from smart car sensors to mosquito repelling technologies. Along the way, students built their confidence and developed life skills like self-expression, communication, leadership, and critical thinking.

While we look forward to returning to in-person learning, we are pleased to see students succeed in a virtual platform, achieving the same mix of collaboration and innovation we see during the in-person program. One student said, “The FlexFactor program was a great experience. I learned a lot about the different jobs in STEM that will be available to me when I get out of college and the different skills I would need to know in order to get that job!”

For more information about NextFlex Learning Programs including FlexFactor and FlexFactor Sprint, visit nextflex.us.

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