Innovative Partnerships Build Advanced Manufacturing Pathways

Karen Fraser-Middleton
Innovation Showcase

The energy and passion is palatable to anyone who tours Sacramento Hacker Lab, a place where entrepreneurs, hobbyists, students, artists, retirees, and corporate employees mix, inspire, and produce in incubator offices and hands-on fabricating space. Models, custom parts, video game characters, and aquaponics system components are being made on a professional level 3D printer thanks to the Sierra College Center for Applied Competitive Technology (CACT), based in Rocklin, CA.

The Sierra Community College District covers Placer, Nevada, and parts of Sacramento County, and stretches from Roseville, where companies such as Hewlett Packard are located, over 50 mostly rural miles to Lake Tahoe. The CACT serves the Sacramento Metropolitan region and Northern California.

Working with Sacramento Hacker Lab is just one of many Sierra College partnerships that are spurring innovation, encouraging entrepreneurship, preparing students, and meeting workforce demand in the advanced manufacturing sector in Northern California. Carol Pepper-Kittredge, CACT Director, Sierra College, credits building customer-driven relationships with college faculty, high school teachers, manufacturing companies, and regional organizations. "Working collaboratively, we've found customized sustainable solutions to developing an advanced manufacturing workforce in Northern California," said Pepper-Kittredge.

"This is not a cookie-cutter approach," said Pepper-Kittredge. "We listen keenly to the needs of industry and educators to bring a network of resources to the table to transform education and prepare students for engineering and design, and manufacturing and product development pathways."

The Sierra College CACT and Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) Collaborative are funded through the Workforce and Economic Development program of the California Community College Chancellor's Office. In addition, Sierra College has benefited from National Science Foundation funding. The CACT also provides training to manufacturers and businesses in process improvement, lean manufacturing methods, project management, and many other business skills.

Hacker Lab Partnership Inspires Inventive Relationships

The Sacramento Hacker Lab partnership works because it complements community colleges and strengthens Sacramento's regional economy, according to Pepper-Kittredge. Sierra College placed a Stratasys Dimension 3D Printer and soldering kits at Hacker Lab.

Sacramento Hacker Lab member shows a prototype made on the 3D printer provided by Sierra College CACT. Photograph taken by Pero Petricevic, Hacker Lab, for Sierra College; used with permission.

"Students can work all night on a project at Hacker Lab while benefiting from the advice of members with industry experience. Once entrepreneurs are introduced to product development at Hacker Lab, they may want to enroll at community college to gain in-depth skills, certificates, and degrees. Businesses may be able to expand their product lines or improve methods as a result of experimentation and interaction with other creative people at Hacker Lab," said Pepper-Kittredge.

Eric Ullrich, Co-Founder/COO, Sacramento Hacker Lab, believes that the partnership is ideal because both Hacker Lab and Sierra College share an interest in education, technology, and innovation. "We believe that technology can change the world and the starting point is education," said Ullrich.

"Sierra College has an excellent reputation and already we're learning from each other and developing friendships with faculty who want to share their creativity and passion. To attract students, we offer discounted membership and want to work with campus clubs."

Willy Duncan, President, Sierra College Joint Community College District, is enthusiastic about the collaboration. "Deans and faculty across several disciplines have already toured Hacker Lab," said Duncan. "Hacker Lab offers students the opportunity to engage with others in a real world environment. They can gain skills and experiences that will propel their education and career plans toward exciting, growing sectors of the economy."

Hacker Lab launched 16 new businesses in 2013 and is advantageous to established corporations as well, reported Ullrich. "One of our corporate partners, VSP Global, is using 3D printers to develop new designs," said Ullrich. "They benefit from collaborating with our community of designers and engineers who use the 3D printers."

"Technology and advanced manufacturing businesses can benefit from Sierra College's collaboration with Hacker Lab and ultimately that means more career opportunities for students prepared with in-demand technical skills," said Pepper-Kittredge.

Outreach to Feeder High Schools Attracts STEM Students

To encourage innovation with education partners, the Sierra STEM Collaborative has also used grant funding to modernize high school and college Career Technical Education labs, provide faculty professional development, arrange instructor externships with industry partners, and facilitate career exploration in middle and high schools.

According to Jonathon Schwartz, Colfax High School math and engineering instructor, the rural school located between Sacramento and Lake Tahoe has benefited from a 3D printer, CNC machines, and a laser cutter as well as teacher training in industry-standard software. But he says that Sierra STEM provides much more. "Improving our labs has enhanced our programs, but it is the way Carol Pepper-Kittredge and the Sierra STEM Collaborative works with us that is innovative," said Schwartz. "The Sierra STEM team believes in what we are doing at Colfax High School to spark an interest in our students and prepare them to be future entrepreneurs, inventors, designers, and engineers."

With Sierra STEM's support and encouragement, the Career Technical Education teachers at Colfax High School created a Tech Essentials course that introduces all freshmen to the wood, metal, media, photography, and engineering labs. Students build an amplifier that works with MP3 players. The new curriculum introduces students to tools in the tech labs, reinforces applied academics, and teaches problem solving. In addition, the project allows student customization, requires career exploration, and appeals to male and female students.

Sierra College Mechatronics faculty hosted a hands-on event to attract girls to the program. Participants use digital multimeter to test components. Photo taken by Karen Fraser-Middleton for Sierra College; used with permission.

More Colfax students, especially girls, now go on to take engineering and Career Technical Education advanced coursework that prepares them to pursue mechatronics, engineering, welding, energy technology, and drafting and engineering support at Sierra College and other postsecondary institutions. The Tech Essentials program is now a model being adopted throughout the Placer Union High School District, creating a more direct path to Sierra College and regional employment with manufacturers and technology companies. In addition, the STEM Collaborative connects Colfax students to employers though manufacturing tours and design challenges where students get direct feedback from industry product development experts though regular video conferences.

Grants Support Faculty Innovation at Sierra College

At Sierra College, labs have been modernized, 3D printers are inspiring students, faculty have received industry-specific training and gone on employer externships, and new connections have been made with local industry as a result of support from the California Community Colleges Chancellor's Office and National Science Foundation grants.

Sierra College students in the Art & Innovation club are using the on-campus 3D printer provided through the STEM Collaborative to make a model to show prospective corporate sponsors. The mix of engineering, mechatronics, art, and design students are building a people-powered kinetic vehicle that must work on land and in the water for the three-day Kinetic Grand Championship on California's northern coast.

With CACT support, Sierra College mathematics faculty went on externships to the Northstar California Resort to learn how maintenance technicians who operate the ski lifts use math on the job. To attract more students to STEM careers, they need math skills, explained Katie Lucero, Math Department Chair at Sierra College. "Through this experience, instructors gathered examples of how mathematics is applied at a ski resort," said Lucero.  "By making math relevant, students are likely to be more engaged and persist in taking the courses they need to complete degrees and secure well-paid technical careers."

Sierra College Math faculty participate in a solar externship to identify math applications to incorporate into curriculum. Photo taken by GRID Alternatives for Sierra College; used with permission.

An innovative community partnership made possible through CACT enabled Sierra College mathematics faculty to bring solar power to two single mothers in need while participating in an externship with the nonprofit GRID Alternatives. Vicki Day, Sierra College Mathematics faculty member, spent two days in the field installing solar for two Habitat for Humanity households and identifying real-world math applications. "Applied math problems appeal to students' curiosity. By igniting a spark of interest, we hope students will continue to take the math they need to complete degrees and go onto exciting STEM Careers," said Day.

Through CACT?s national relationships, Sierra College mathematics faculty have also partnered with the welding department on the Sierra College IGNITE (Infusing GeN-ed Into Technical Education) project that was developed in partnership with West Virginia University at Parkersburg (WVUP) and funded by the National Science Foundation.

Bill Wenzel, Welding Department Chair at Sierra College, unveils the mobile Welding Lab at Weld Expo event. Photo taken by Karen Fraser-Middleton for Sierra College; used with permission.

Sierra College Welding Department Chair Bill Wenzel worked with Lucero to develop new infused-math-in-welding curriculum and test it in two classes. While welding classes have always included some math, results showed that incorporating math lessons tied to a student project significantly improved students' math skills. Now, Sierra College welding students are better prepared for employment because the critical math skills sought by industry are being overtly integrated into class projects.

The Sierra College Welding Department also created the only community college mobile training center for welding in Northern California and one of a handful in the United States with CACT and Career Technical Education Perkins funding. The mobile welding training center will train the next generation welders, explained Wenzel.

"With the new technology in the mobile lab, students' speed of travel, amperage, and voltage will be tracked and graphed as they weld, giving them detailed feedback to improve their technique," said Wenzel. "Combining computers with welding technology will give Sierra College students an advantage in securing the skills needed for employment."

The mobile training center will also visit high schools, explained Pepper-Kittredge. "This lab will bring new equipment and tools into the hands of high school students. It will make them aware of Sierra College's certificate and degree programs, as well as career opportunities in welding, fabrication, and advanced manufacturing," said Pepper-Kittredge.  

The mobile training center will also benefit employers. "The CACT can provide specialized industry training, using cutting edge technology, to our local companies," said Pepper-Kittredge.

Business Partners are Key to Preparing Students for Employment

To identify opportunities to support business innovation, Sierra College CACT has developed relationships with manufacturers through direct outreach, contract education, advisory meetings, and participating in business organizations such as the Continuous Improvement Network and Society of Manufacturing Engineers Sacramento Valley Chapter, according to Pepper-Kittredge.

"The key to working with employers is to listen carefully to their needs, respond quickly, and provide solutions that address their concerns and add value to their businesses," said Pepper-Kittredge. "For example, we offer lean and process improvement training to local companies in partnership with the Continuous Improvement Network. Participants report that employee innovation using lean tools has resulted in cost savings and increased productivity that make their businesses more competitive."

"With the U.S. Zero Waste Business Council (USZWBC), Sierra College CACT is co-sponsoring training to prepare companies to become certified as zero waste businesses," said Pepper-Kittredge. "Sierra College also supported the development of the new USZWBC Zero Waste Business Handbook. Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. is hosting the training and giving tours to show how the firm's zero waste program avoided $5,398,470 in disposal costs and generated $903,308 in revenue."

Community College Innovation Works as a Result of Collaboration

Just as Sacramento Hacker Lab brings together a robust group of people with a shared interest in learning and creating, Sierra College CACT connects the college to high schools and businesses. "Sierra College CACT and STEM Collaborative have been successful in transforming education because we provide the opportunities for the most innovative educators and business representatives to work together, share concerns, and implement new programs," said Pepper-Kittredge. "This innovative collaboration is producing engaged students prepared to join our workforce in advanced manufacturing."

Karen Fraser-Middleton is president of Marketing Action, Inc. and began working with the Sierra College CACT in 2003. Her role has included strategic planning, project management, and communication.

Opinions expressed in Innovation Showcase are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the League for Innovation in the Community College.