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Pryor, OK, teachers educate students – and themselves – about hub of local economy

Published November 27, 2019
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Additional MidAmerica STEM Alliance article:

PRYOR, OK – Some people “can’t see the forest for the trees,” or so the saying goes. In Pryor, Oklahoma, residents can’t see the jobs for the businesses. MidAmerica Industrial Park (MAIP), the state’s largest industrial park and one of the largest in the nation by area, is known locally as “that place with all the big buildings and equipment.”

Home to more than 80 firms, including Google, DuPont, Chevron, and SYGMA, and virtually a city unto itself with its own police force, airport, and medical clinic, the industrial park, contrary to a common misperception, does not offer only minimum-wage, manual-labor positions. Actually, well-paying, high-tech jobs from mechanics to technicians to welders to engineers go unfilled at many companies located within the 9,000-acre facility. The industrial park has been a boon to the local economy for more than half a century, but a growing skills gap threatens to hamper MAIP’s growth.

MAIP’s board of trustees studied the situation and decided to invest in STEM education to prepare the region’s students for the increasingly technical jobs going unfilled. A STEM Learning Ecosystem, the MidAmerica STEM Alliance was formed, and Scott Fry, the park’s director of workforce development, was handed the reins on education as well. With 17 years of experience as an educator and in business, Fry has advised the board and connected with superintendents and educators from 18 school districts that lie within the 35-mile-radius labor shed for MAIP.

One of the first steps with education was for Industrial Park Chief Administrative Office David Stewart to hold focus groups with area high school students. He discovered that students knew little about the park. “What they did know wasn’t necessarily positive,” Fry explained. “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.’”

That investment was more than $2 million for STEM curriculum and materials in 18 school districts. Larger districts were the primary recipients of support two years ago, and this year, eight small, mostly K-8 school districts received $25,000 each to purchase a variety of STEM materials and equipment from Pitsco Education. Among those items were Elementary STEM Units; straw, air, and water rockets; solar vehicles; TETRIX® robotics; elementary coding solutions; and materials for building bridges and structures.

Using these hands-on solutions, students could gain better understanding of the equipment and processes used throughout the industrial park in engineering, design, aerospace, electronics, mechanics, information technology, and the like. Even more importantly, students could improve key workplace skills such as communication, critical thinking, problem-solving, and collaboration.

DISPELLING THE PARK MYTH

With public education being MAIP’s focus for workforce development, educating teachers was a logical first step. Lindsay Coats, a human resources specialist for American Castings, explained why.

“A lot of teachers, they graduate high school, they go right to college to become a teacher, and then they go into the schools. They’ve never been out into the industrial park and learned anything about it,” Coats said. “My husband’s worked in the industrial park his whole life. His father did and his grandfather did. But before I met my husband, I didn’t know anything about the industrial park. I just feel like there used to be a stigma in the high schools that if you weren’t going to go to college, then you had to go work in the industrial park, and it was dirty. It was a very bad stigma.”

Lisa Bookout, a careers teacher at nearby Tahlequah High School, confirmed that lack of knowledge on the education side. She recently had a group of seniors touring RAE Corporation so they could get a firsthand, up-close look at how custom industrial-grade air-conditioning systems are built.

“I grew up 10 minutes from here, and my family all worked out here, so I was familiar with it, but I never understood exactly what they did,” Bookout said. Since she has been learning more about the jobs available to her students, she regularly books tours at participating businesses where a certification or a few months of on-the-job training can lead to jobs that pay better than some careers held by college graduates.

“These students, they don’t know what they don’t know. You sometimes know what your parents do for a living, but that might be all. There are a lot of misconceptions, so students need to have these STEM experiences,” Bookout said. “If we give students more STEM exposure K through 8, then we won’t have to go back through that in high school. It’s authentic learning. It’s authentic critical thinking.”

RAE Human Resources Manager Kari Mace-Russell was one of the tour leaders guiding Bookout’s students through the plant. “People think we’re manufacturing, they think we’re a certain thing, and then they come in and they realize, ‘Wow, this is way more than I expected.’ Our employees have to solve problems every day. We’re gonna give them a blueprint, but it’s not 100 percent. It’s like maybe 70 percent, and then they have to make some decisions on their own about how to finish that project out, and then they have to be able to communicate with other people in other departments.”

A former English teacher, Mace-Russell used her son as an example of why career exposure via STEM courses and activities is important in not only high school but even earlier. “He was taking those honors classes and advanced-placement classes and those things that you need to do to go on to college. He went to college for maybe three semesters for chemistry, decided that that was not what he wanted to do, and so now he’s not really sure.” In the meantime, he’s working at RAE. “It’s valuable for him to be here because he’s getting some experience that will give him a better idea of what he wants to do. It would’ve been beneficial for him to have had more of these types of hands-on opportunities in school.”

American Castings is attempting to improve educators’ knowledge through a summer externship for principals and teachers, where they are paid to spend one week in the plant, touring and learning how employees make castings.

“I think it’s super helpful when [educators] actually go out into the industries,” Coats said. “Just having a knowledge of what’s going on in this area, the businesses where their students could get jobs. Not all kids are going to go to college, and so they need to know what other avenues they have.”

ECOSYSTEM GETS BUSINESS BUY-IN

Businesses in the industrial park support the work of Fry and the MidAmerica STEM Alliance because they stand to benefit directly in a few years when high school graduates come to them with increased knowledge about MAIP and a jump-start on the desired workplace soft skills. The partnership with the schools is already yielding benefits at RAE.

“It helps us to have more dialogue with the teachers and the students. Sometimes it’s really kind of exciting to see their eyes start popping,” said Mace-Russell, who has visited some of the schools’ STEM labs. “The students are developing teamwork skills, they’re working on problems together, and that’s something that is kind of foreign to me. I don’t remember us doing a whole lot of that when we were young. That’s really going to give them a great advantage when they get to the workforce.”

RAE Corporation and American Castings have double-digit job openings at any given time, and both are banking on that situation improving after STEM education takes deeper root in area schools. “There’s a huge skills gap, so that’s kind of where STEM can come into play,” Coats said. “We always are looking for maintenance – electrical, mechanical. . . . We’re constantly interviewing and looking for people. The unemployment rate’s really low, which is good for people looking for jobs but not so good for companies because we have a really hard time finding people. . . .We’re definitely gaining exposure because of the STEM Alliance, and I think it’s letting kids know that there are other areas of opportunity.”

WHAT’S THE END GAME?

It’s all about employability and filling the skills gaps.

Mace-Russell says that as an American manufacturer, she’s concerned about global competition over the next 10 to 20 years. “I’d like to see students have more of the math and sciences at a younger age. That way, our students are very comfortable with it, and they’re excelling as they get to the high school level. If they aren’t exposed to these types of careers when they’re young, then they may never have an interest in them at all.”

Young students often don’t know what career opportunities lie ahead, but that’s changing in the Pryor, Oklahoma, area, thanks to the MidAmerica STEM Alliance. All stakeholders, whether in business or education, share the same desire as Coats when she says, “We’re community-minded, so we want everyone that lives in this area, northeast Oklahoma, to have jobs that they like, that are good, so they can make a living wage and support their families.”

“The summer [professional development] session was critical because it took all of our teachers through every activity that they would face, every Expedition the kids would be doing. It was vitally important.”

– Darius McKay, principal, Girard Middle School, Dothan, Alabama

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