Photo Caption: A robot mounts a cockpit into a car on the assembly line of a Mercedes-Benz factory in Germany. THOMAS KIENZLE/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
INSIDE SUBARU OF Indiana Automotive, students gather around a scaled-down version of the robotic arms the industry uses to make cars. They watch as it sorts colored blocks on a miniaturized production line, occasionally glancing at the nearby laptop to make sure it is following the commands they programmed. These students are simulating the roles of modern manufacturing employees.
In the automotive industry, robots have become common, performing risky or repetitive tasks and improving the production line. By 2019, there will be approximately 2.6 million industrial robots in use worldwide, according to a 2016 report by the International Federation of Robotics.
However, while the increased use of industrial robots has enhanced the precision and efficiency of manufacturing, it has also fueled a skills gap in the field. According to a study by Deloitte Consulting LLP and the Manufacturing Institute, there are an estimated 3.4 million jobs to be filled in manufacturing from 2015 to 2025 – and only approximately 1.4 million qualified workers to do so.
Schools and industries to bridge this gap and find ways to best prepare students for workforce requirements – one in which science, technology, engineering and mathematics play a major part. STEM Education Works aims to help by introducing a robotics-centered curriculum with industry-aligned technology into middle- and high-school classrooms.
The goal of STEM Education Works’ curriculum is to expose students to industry-relevant technical skills at a younger age, Strimel said. These types of skills are currently only introduced in high-school elective classes, he said, but by applying academic standards such as Next Generation Science Standards, the curriculum can be a foundation in core STEM classes to introduce these skills in middle school.
Strimel, a professor in Purdue University’s Department of Technology Leadership and Innovation, said the curriculum he designed brings back the physical, “making” aspect of learning, providing opportunities for students to learn technical competencies and gain the skills they need to adapt to and thrive in the regional workforce.
They work with sensors, robots, lasers, computer-aided design, computer numerically controlled machines and complete other tasks actually used in industry,” Strimel said, adding that this helps broaden participation and interest in future studies in the field. “It’s a time of renewed need for all students and not just a select few.”
According to RobotWorx, an industrial robot manufacturing company, robotic arms are one of the most common robots used in industry. Because of this, STEM Education Works uses a scaled-down robotic arm, corresponding to the larger industrial ones used in manufacturing, to prepare students with the most relevant technology.
To operate robotic arms, students are required to know a small amount of coding. STEM Education Works has traveled to the Lafayette, Indiana, CoderDojo several times to teach students how to program the Dobot Magician robotic arms. The lessons involve real-world actions that make sense to young students. When using the visual programming language Blockly in May, students directed the robots to run bases in a mock baseball game. At Subaru of Indiana Automotive, the students programed the scaled-down robotic arms to write their names before learning about the larger, industrial robots, providing a real-world application for the activity they completed.
But teaching robotics isn’t enough. To bridge the workforce gap, students must also hone critical-thinking and problem-solving skills. The right curriculum can help.
“It often comes back to computational thinking, systems thinking and engineering design practices and how that aligns with regional industries,” Strimel said, explaining that problem solving is one of the core skills industry leaders look for when hiring workers.
Bridging the workforce skills gap does not start and end with the classroom. Industry input is also important. According to the study by Deloitte Consulting LLP and the Manufacturing Institute, 72 percent of manufacturing executives cited that involvement with local schools and community colleges is productive for workforce development.
Tom Easterday, senior executive vice president at Subaru of Indiana Automotive, said in the 30 years he has been there, there has been a substantial growth of robotics because of increased production efficiency, enhanced logistics and improved ergonomics. This growth underscores the need for a workforce that is competent in the technical, analytical-troubleshooting and problem-solving skills necessary to get the job done, he said.
“A lot of the skills needed 30-40 years ago in manufacturing have changed due to the extensive use of robotics, but also because of the increased complexity of items produced and the manufacturing process,” Easterday said, “It’s critical that schools and manufacturers work closely together to develop the skills needed for the manufacturing workplace of today and the future.”
Rebecca Ellis is a staff writer for STEM Education Works.