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STEM: ‘future-proofing the workforce’

Pryor, OK, industrial park puts the right tools in the hands of future workers

Published November 29, 2019
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Leadership Perspective

TPN: The Pitsco Network
SF: Scott Fry, STEM Alliance director and MidAmerica Industrial Park workforce development director

Introduction: The MidAmerica STEM Alliance is a STEM Learning Ecosystem formed through the MidAmerica Industrial Park in Pryor, Oklahoma. Eighteen school districts within the industrial park’s labor shed have benefited from more than $2.5 million in grants for STEM curriculum and materials. Scott Fry serves as director of the STEM Alliance and as the workforce development director for the industrial park, which is among the largest in the US. He brings extensive experience in education and business to his role as facilitator, leader, and bridge builder working with both education and business stakeholders.

TPN: As the STEM Alliance director, you are the middleman between business and education representatives. How have you managed to bring the two sides together?
SF:
I think it is important to provide opportunities for business and education to communicate. There needs to be that first step of seeking to understand, and that’s really important in these relationships because they are two different animals. They live in different worlds, talk different languages, and have different metrics. I think sometimes those initial connections can be somewhat challenging and someone needs to act as the intermediary to help forge those relationships.

TPN: How did the STEM Alliance come together to create a STEM education mission?
SF:
I think we’re still in our infancy, and it’s just all snowballed on us over the last couple of years. We had a focus on STEM early on, and what I always like to say is we were doing STEM before STEM was cool, and that really started with you guys dating back to 2002. It started with Pitsco. . . . So, we had STEM things going, but everything was taken to a new level when we made it a part of our workforce development program. In spring 2017 we applied and received the state designation as a STEM community and then we were accepted into the STEM learning ecosystem. I think that’s when everything was kind of formalized.

TPN: Who has funded this initiative?
SF:
MidAmerica has been the primary funder. MAIP is a state public trust run by five trustees who make all the decisions for the park. Dave Stewart is the chief administrative officer, and he’s also a trustee. Dave spent the first six months of his tenure diving into this thing and really trying to understand what needed to be done to grow and expand the park. And the thing that kept bubbling to the top was workforce, workforce, workforce, so he knew we needed to make a significant investment in the workforce infrastructure. He held focus groups with area high school students, and what he learned was they didn’t know a lot about the park. What they did know wasn’t necessarily positive. So that also indicated that the educators, too, don’t understand, even though some have lived here their entire life. They know stuff goes on out here, they see companies, buildings, but they don’t really understand the inner workings. So, Dave was like, “Look we need to make an investment in this workforce system.”

TPN: Describe how the board decided to implement the STEM ecosystem’s education plan.
SF:
At first, we were going to build a career center at the park, and that is where we intended to connect with area students through STEM and robotics programs. However, as we started having conversations with the school districts, we realized there were significant challenges in connecting and interfacing with such a large number of students. Dave said, “I feel like our money would be better spent if it’s in the school districts where those students are on a daily basis.” While we have a great career tech system, there are capacity limitations. So not all the students who would like to go to career tech can go because there are only so many seats. So, we pulled our superintendents in and said, “Hey, here’s what we’re thinking. What do you guys think?” The majority of them were on board right up front. There were a couple that were a little bit slow to get on board, but they are some of our biggest champions now.

TPN: How did the MidAmerica Industrial Park determine which schools to support with STEM labs and resources?
SF:
We studied our labor shed and identified that 65 percent of our workforce comes from within a 35-mile radius of the Park. This information gave us the data that we needed to be strategic in our decision-making and investments. We wanted to invest in school districts where we know we’re going to be having future workers come from and target some of these communities that we know we’re not pulling from very well.

TPN: How did the business-education relationship look initially?
SF:
We developed a memorandum of understanding with our area school districts and agreed to collaborate on the workforce development effort. That included career awareness and exposure for the students and professional development for the teachers. They would open their doors to us and our employers, and vice versa, we would open our doors to them. And so, it was really just a mutually beneficial relationship at the end of the day. We all want the students to be successful.

TPN: The industrial park has financially supported the establishment of STEM labs and materials in 18 regional school districts, large and small. What signs of success are you seeing?
SF:
First is the feedback that we are receiving from our school districts and our employers. We hear many anecdotal stories about student success and enlightenment, about the future career and educational plans based on their STEM experiences. We do end-of-year surveys and receive great feedback about how STEM is impacting the students in so many different ways. . . . One of the things we like about the STEM labs is they start to build those foundational skills. They also allow students to discover what their natural aptitudes and talents and interests are and how they can articulate those into a career. . . . We see those as not only STEM labs, but also as our mini career centers. DuPont goes into the STEM labs of Pryor, and they’ll do different projects with the students. American Castings does the same. GRDA (Grand River Dam Authority) is the same. Google is a major supporter. These experiences help bring relevance to students and teachers alike.

TPN: When the doors open both ways, what do you want to occur?
SF:
What I want to occur when those doors open is just seeing students realize the relevance of STEM application. Our youth are really good at using technology, but not really good at applying technology. We want area students to realize what their opportunities are in their community. To discover what they are good at, what they would like to do as a career. And what our teachers are telling us is it’s not always the best and brightest that shine in these environments. It’s really the other students who are lighting up and realizing they have talent and ability that is valuable in terms of career pathways.

TPN: So, these labs and materials are a STEM avenue for all students?
SF:
That was very important to us. In anything we do, we want it to be something that is valuable to students of all levels, abilities and capabilities. Early on what we’re seeing is the STEM opportunities were being provided were provided to the gifted and talented. And I’m like, “No that’s not the concept. We want all students to have these experiences so that they too can discover that they’re good at learning. Applied learning that can be articulated into a career.”

TPN: Ultimately, how is the industrial park going to benefit?
SF:
Supporting the growth of the park, and that’s not going to happen without a skilled workforce. Our hope is that we have a workforce that is aware of their opportunities but also are skilled for those opportunities.

TPN: Have the businesses had any concerns about the efforts of the STEM Alliance?
SF:
I got challenged in a meeting with some of our employers one time. A gentleman raised his hand and said, “All of this STEM is great and good, but my major need is production, entry-level production.” And I’m like, “Yeah, but what is that going to look like in 10 years? Is it going to look like it is today? Probably not.” As we continue to become more automated, we need a workforce that is ready for those types of positions. Through this process, what we’re really doing is future-proofing the workforce, so they are prepared for their future, not our present.

TPN: Tell us about the common ground for stakeholders on both sides.
SF:
I think common ground is student success. I mean all of us want our communities to be healthy and vibrant, right? And so that, in my mind, is the mutually beneficial goal. Because for our businesses or for our communities to thrive, there have to be good paying jobs; for there to be good paying jobs, there have to be good companies; and for good companies to thrive, they have to have a good workforce, and so that’s where we’re headed with this whole thing.

TPN: There’s been such a strong emphasis on college, college, college in K-12 education, and skilled and technical trades have been deemphasized. What has that led to?
SF:
I think it’s the reason we are where we are with such an emphasis on workforce development, STEM initiatives, and implementation of apprenticeship programs. As a nation, we devalued work, quite frankly. We started to look down our nose at it. And especially the trade and technical occupations. Most people have the vision of their grandpa’s manufacturing environment, and it is totally different today. Most people don’t understand what these technical occupations are about, what type of opportunity they can provide. . . . The return on investment in these technical careers and technical education pathways is so much higher than a lot of the four-year traditional pathways, and it’s immediate. There is so much opportunity, and we need our young people to be prepared to take advantage.

“We need to make learning more exciting. And any time you can have a hands-on environment you will get better results. I’ve been in a lot of our schools to see it, and the kids are actually excited to be there. You go into somebody’s math or science class and they might not be as engaged.”

– James Tager, deputy superintendent for Instructional Services, Volusia County, Florida

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