In what seems to be the fulfillment of a promise by Barack Obama to increase the competitiveness of US schools, Buford Middle School in Charlottesville, Virginia will be opening a lab school devoted to advanced manufacturing, the first in a series of work and experience-oriented hubs that will connect K-12 students to Virginia’s state universities. To kick off the program, Buford Middle School hosted an hour and half-long workshop on 3D printing, in which students were able to construct their own stereo speakers, creating plastic components with 3D printers and subwoofers from paper. The event received international attention from such camera crews as Nippon Television from Japan, trying to glimpse the steps the US education system was taking to improve science education in the country.
Not unlike magnet programs, the lab schools will be incorporated into public middle schools and high schools. They will be open to the larger school population; however, in the case of Buford and Jack Jouett Middle Schools, only 500 8th graders will be able to enroll at the beginning, providing some lucky students access to hands-on STEM education. The lab schools, which will also be found in Charlottesville High School and Albemarle High School, will be taught with the help of university students from the University of Virginia‘s Curry School of Education and School of Engineering and Applied Science. And all of the partner institutions will communicate with one another virtually, by means of video conferencing tools.
The potential of these schools could be quite awesome, providing eligible students with a university level education surrounding extremely interesting ideas with real world application. As the program expands, students at the high school level will be able to earn college credit in these classes through their local community college, certainly giving them a head start in college education. But, in considering that the program received a good deal of its funding through a state grant from Virginia governor Bob McDonnell, the party partly responsible for convincing Northrop Grumman to move its headquarters to Virginia, my concern is the bigger picture, which includes the partnership between the University of Virginia and the Commonwealth Center for Advanced Manufacturing (CCAM).
CCAM is similar to NAMII – the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute – in that it is an institution meant to connect industry leaders with universities to create a network of advanced manufacturing partners. Though, unlike NAMII, it does not receive much federal funding. But, very much like NAMII, CCAM is made up of industry leaders with strong ties to defense, including Newport News Shipbuilding, the division of Northrop Grumman devoted to building nuclear submarines. I won’t go into my opinion on that here, but I will say that, according to the 2010 manual offered by the US’s Defense Acquisition University, the department charged with buying military tech, the Department of Defense is making an attempt to increase the integration of civilians into the military supply chain:
The defense industrial base has gone through a metamorphosis. Weaker competitors have merged with stronger companies or have dropped out of the market. The remaining large contractors are positioning themselves with other major contractors to compete for the remaining defense contracts. For example, in 1982 there were 10 major U.S. producers of ﬁxed-wing military aircraft. By 1998, there were only three: Boeing, Lockheed-Martin, and Northrop-Grumman. As a result of this reduced industrial base, the Department [of Defense] is working to bring about greater civilian/ military industrial integration.
So, while the school partnerships will no doubt greatly improve the STEM programs in key Virginia public schools, I am wary of where the career tracks found in those schools will lead. As students determine their careers in high school, funneled into the University of Virginia’s excellent engineering programs, are they also determining their future employment in companies with vested interests in the military? And, while I am certain that the state’s partnership between industry and education will increase employment, the question becomes employment in what sort of jobs? I suppose that only time will tell. In the meantime, Virginia students increased access to 3D printing will, hopefully increase overall interest among young people countrywide, leading to more and more Makers in the United States.