FlexFactor is a unique workforce development program created by NextFlex, America’s Flexible Hybrid Electronics Innovation Institute. Launched in San Jose, California in 2016, it has expanded nationally to Ohio and Alabama. This technology and entrepreneurship program is designed to be an immersive educational experience that engages the next generation of advanced manufacturing talent by connecting students, school districts, colleges and universities, and members of the industry. NextFlex’s collaboration with Ohio’s Lorain County Community College (LCCC) marked the first step in FlexFactor’s national expansion.
Helping students develop the 4Cs … and then some
Launched as a pilot with 13 high school students in March 2018, Lorain County FlexFactor will engage more than 750 students in the 2018-2019 academic year, with continued expansion for next year. This exponential growth is not surprising as it mirrors the rapid expansion seen in Silicon Valley, where the program grew from eight students in the inaugural pilot in 2016 to more than 3,500 students across four locations in less than two years.
FlexFactor challenges student teams to work collaboratively to identify a real-world problem, conceptualize an advanced hardware device that addresses the issue, and showcase their product by building a business model and pitching it to a panel of business and education representatives “Shark Tank” style.
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FlexFactor brings imagination and creativity into the classroom, and students are lighting up with excitement. “FlexFactor allows students to let their imagination run wild, solving problems with futuristic technology we didn’t think was possible!” says Ario Thompson, a junior at Oberlin High School. “Through FlexFactor, we can impact the future by sharing our technologically driven ideas and business plans with industry professionals who can help us bring them to reality.”
During their time in the FlexFactor program at LCCC, students are immersed in the collegiate environment, eliminating college admissions barriers while forming relationships with faculty members through lectures and interactive advanced technology lab experiences. Students engage in design thinking and prototyping at the LCCC Campana Center for Ideation and Innovation.
The role of mentoring
The Ohio Small Business Development Center and NEOLaunchNET—a regional initiative that seeks to inspire a culture of innovation and an entrepreneurial mindset on college and university campuses—provide business model mentoring. Students immediately connect their learning opportunities to the educational pathways at their community college while building relationships with local companies.
The FlexFactor program, designed to be delivered in approximately four weeks in any academic course, reaches a diverse student body and can be customized to provide a unique experience for each school district. While geared toward middle and high school students, new iterations are being designed to engage women, students in urban districts, English learners, and students with exceptional needs. LCCC is working to build key components of the FlexFactor program into at-risk youth after-school programming, summer camps for elementary students, and agricultural career and technical student organizations.
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Educators, industry professionals, and parents are amazed by the way young learners embrace innovation, entrepreneurship, and advanced technology. Lorain County student teams have conceptualized devices that keep foster children safe from abuse, prevent human trafficking, detect drugs on school premises, monitor athlete safety and performance, provide medical care to soldiers on the battlefield, eliminate impaired driving, monitor the health of forests, reduce pollutants in inner-city drinking water and provide earlier dental cancer detection. This small sampling of solutions, developed by passionate students, lets us know that the future of our society is in good hands.
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Gaining exposure to manufacturing careers
Industry partners are clamoring to be a part of informing and attracting young people into an engaged talent pipeline. Students acquire industry exposure by visiting advanced manufacturing facilities operated by companies like Jabil and DuPont in California; AgriNomix, Lincoln Electric, and Thogus in Ohio; and Boeing in Alabama. Through personalized and onsite industry mentoring, students are exposed to the multitude of career opportunities that the advanced manufacturing sector can provide them.
“FlexFactor offers an exciting new approach to engage the talents and creativity of our next generation of leaders to help shape the future of work,” says Tracy Green, vice president for strategic and institutional development at LCCC. “Given the importance of technology innovation to our regional economy, and the important role that community colleges play, we are excited to see how effectively FlexFactor’s entrepreneurial approach helps make the innovation economy real and gets students excited to learn what they need to do to play a role.”
As NextFlex’s proactive approach to increasing the U.S. advanced manufacturing talent pipeline, FlexFactor provides an ideal platform to capture the excitement and creativity of students and fosters a mindset that inspires them to innovate and take risks. Meanwhile, it nurtures a passion for STEAM and technical education and teaches important business and communication concepts. Through FlexFactor, we’re all playing an important role in developing tomorrow’s talent in technology and advanced manufacturing sectors today.