iCube creation inspires students to get into STEM

Tennessee Tech's iCube has a program called MakerMinded which is a digital platform that provides students like Eli Hudson in Dave Powell's STEM class at Cookeville High School widespread access to STEM and manufacturing education experiences.

COOKEVILLE –It’s estimated that in the next decade, nearly 3.5 million manufacturing jobs will be available, but two million will remain unfilled due to an unqualified workforce to fill the gap.

Technology is becoming more and more prevalent in society, so the question is how can schools get students interested in STEM-related fields?

Enter Tennessee Tech’s iCube and a program called MakerMinded.

Momentum on the program development picked up when Tom Brewer, associate vice president of strategic research initiatives, spoke with the Tennessee Manufacturer’s Association about the workforce needs.

“The biggest issue (that people with the Tennessee Manufacturer’s Association have) is that there were misconceptions about the manufacturing field, that it’s dirty and grimy,” Amanda Ellis, iCube producer, said. “Now, it’s robotics and very scientific and clean.”

MakerMinded is a digital platform that uses competition to provide students with widespread access to STEM and manufacturing education experiences. The platform’s goal is to create the next generation of manufacturing leaders by saturating modern learning infrastructure with a manufacturing mindset, bridging the gap between activities and programs that engage and educate youth and students who take advantage of them.

A portfolio of national and local-level STEM and manufacturing career exploration activities, project-based learning, formal educational resources and other learning opportunities are provided to schools and students.

Students compete with other schools in a statewide MakerMinded campaign, with points collected and tracked through a real-time leader board.

The idea came about through the iCube’s original partnership with LIFT, which stands for Lightweight Innovations for Tomorrow. It is a Detroit-based public-private partnership that develops and deploys advanced lightweight metal manufacturing technologies and implements education and training initiatives to prepare the workforce of today and the future.

LIFT originally partnered with iCube by using its virtual reality programs to connect students with manufacturers in the Detroit area.

MakerMinded began as a pilot program in Tennessee and Kentucky in 2016, earning national recognition by the White House that same year. Michigan was added shortly afterwards and then expanded into Ohio in 2017.

Three years later, the program is now in seven states, with Idaho, Indiana and West Virginia being the three newest.

“There were 10 states competing to get the program (this year),” Ellis said.

The states are chosen by LIFT, who is the project manager.

“MakerMinded has proven to be the right ingredient to inspire and prepare tomorrow’s innovators and makers,” Emily DeRocco, LIFT’s education and workforce development director, said. “The platform is not just opening young minds to advanced manufacturing, but also giving those young minds foundational technical and employability skills they need for some of the most competitive careers, as well as in life.”

Each individual state has leaders who go to the schools to talk about the program.

“It’s constantly evolving,” McNally (Mac) Lunn, associate director of iCube, said. “There are so many activities students can do.”

There are different categories to choose from. Students can experience STEM in the community, do in-class activities, participate in STEM competitions, connect with a local manufacturer, and attend a STEM event.

To earn points, participants have to complete events by the posted deadline and upload proof of experience. That can include video or photos of students participating in the event or a certificate of completion.

The more difficult the event, the more points it is worth.

The winners of the competition receive an Oculus Rift virtual reality set — a pre-programmed laptop and the headset — all in a suitcase that makes it easy to transport.

This is not just for high schoolers — middle schoolers and even elementary school students can also get in on the action.

In fact, it was a 12-year-old Prescott Middle School student who created the program’s mascot, Finley the Fabricator.

“This gets students who may not even have considered a career in STEM interested,” Kevin Liska, iCube executive director, said. “It is engaging students and driving competition.”

To date, there are 454 schools involved, 5,273 users and nearly 6,000 activity submissions in Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio and Michigan.

Tennessee has the highest number in all of those categories, with 181 schools, 2,326 users and 2,253 submissions.

Twenty of those schools are in the Upper Cumberland region. Those include elementary, middle and high schools from Putnam, Overton, Fentress, DeKalb, Smith, Jackson, Warren and White counties.

Kentucky has 120 schools and more than 1,200 users, while Ohio has 125 schools and 1,491 users. Michigan is still gaining interest, with only 28 schools and 229 users in the system.

“This is an area of workforce development that is in line with Tennessee Tech’s mission,” Liska said.

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