Before Firelands High School senior Lane Koba-Nelson participated in Lorain County Community College’s FlexFactor program, he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do after graduation. But a tour of Lincoln Electric’s advanced manufacturing operations exposed him to some possibilities.
“Until we visited Lincoln Electric, I never thought to apply there,” says Koba-Nelson. “Touring the plant showed me a wide range of places I could work within advanced manufacturing. It was eye-opening.”
FlexFactor is designed to spark innovation and interest in advanced manufacturing in the next generation and includes a trip to a local manufacturing company. The program introduces students to the potential of innovation and entrepreneurship and is tailored to each district’s specific needs; while the mainstay of the program remains the same, parts can be adjusted depending on the participating students. It currently targets middle and high school students, but LCCC is working to integrate the program to target at-risk youth, elementary school students and agricultural and technical student organizations.
The five-week curriculum — in which teams of students identify a real-world problem and find an innovative solution using flexible hybrid electronic technology — culminates in students presenting their conceptualized product and business plan to a judging panel.
Koba-Nelson’s team, Safeguard Driving, addressed the problem of distracted driving by developing a camera that tracks eye movement. Team member Bailey Borer says the real-world experience sparked her interest in business.
“We were able to figure out problems and find solutions,” she says. “We got outside of the classroom and saw how things are manufactured, then developed a marketing plan. It was a great opportunity to see what people actually do. Now I have an idea I can go forward with into the business world.”
Tying student experiences to industry
Launched in San Jose, California, in 2016 by NextFlex, America’s Flexible Hybrid Electronics Innovation Institute, FlexFactor connects students, school districts, colleges and universities, and members of the manufacturing and advanced technologies industries. In its first year, LCCC’s FlexFactor program launched as a pilot with six Lorain County high schools and engaged with 685 students in the 2018-19 school year, says Deanna Hersko, program coordinator for FlexFactor and College Tech Prep at LCCC.
“It’s catching on, because it’s tying students directly to business and industry,” says Hersko. “They have the opportunity to apply what they see on an industry day field trip. They’re receiving mentoring from professionals in the field to help develop their product, and we’re challenging them to think in a different way to solve a real-world problem.”
Students tour the LCCC Campana Center for Ideation and Innovation to participate in prototype and design thinking workshops and receive business model mentoring from the Ohio Small Business Development Center and NEOLaunchNET.
“It was a great experience because of the opportunities we were given through LCCC,” says Max Bellman, a Firelands senior. “The people at LCCC were very helpful and gave us insight into how to make a product the way we wanted it, not the way they thought it should be. They led us to think outside the box and gave us the guidance to create our own product and understand what we can do. It’s a great opportunity to express what problems affect us and the people around us, then have the chance to come up with a solution.”
Gaining the confidence to succeed
Clearview High School student Sabian Alvarado says mentors helped his team expand their thinking.
“Meeting with the LCCC mentors through FlexFactor was really neat,” says Alvarado. “They pushed us to figure out the technology behind our product, understand how we could make it work and think about who our partners and target audience are.”
Alvarado says the program helped him understand the complexity that goes into developing new technology-based products and showed him the resources to guide innovators are right here in Lorain County.
“It feels really good to understand everything that goes into creating a new technology,” he says.
Brian Kilgore, a Clearview student whose team created a GPS system attached to a seeing eye dog, says the project gave him confidence that he could succeed.
“I liked solving a problem and seeing a real need we could meet,” he says. “I’ve always wanted to invent something and help change the world, and this showed me I can do that.”
FlexFactor plants that seed of innovation — and motivation — in students’ minds, sparking excitement and preparing them for a rapidly changing workplace.
“FlexFactor allows us to let our imaginations run wild, solving problems with futuristic technology we didn’t think was possible,” says Oberlin High School junior Ario Thompson. “We can impact the future by sharing our tech-driven ideas and business plans with professionals who can help us bring them to reality.”
Hersko says the students’ experiences have been life-changing.
“When you’re able to put into practice what you’re learning, you can connect the dots between career and higher education pathways,” Hersko says. “This is the most rewarding program I’ve ever been a part of. Students start off unsure, learning a new technology, but by the time they are in front of a room confidently presenting their project to a panel of industry and business partners, it’s amazing.”