Bring the FutureMaker Lab to Your School For Hands-On Career Exploration

Posted July 1, 2022

Kansas teachers and parents can help students “try on” in-demand jobs through an innovative career exploration program that delivers activities and resources directly to them.

The FutureMaker Lab provides middle school, high school and GED-seeking students with introductory information about STEM careers along with hands-on activities to make the experience “stickier.” Whether virtually or on site — with a 40-foot trailer full of equipment in tow — the Lab arrives at schools and community events across the state to help students visualize themselves in a variety of technical careers and make informed decisions regarding their futures.

Learning More About the Lab

The FutureMaker Lab was founded in 2016 as a partnership between WSU Tech and Goodwill Industries. WSU Tech President Sheree Utash and Gayle Goetz, vice president of career services and director of NexStep Alliance at Goodwill Industries, joined forces to find a solution to the state’s critical labor shortage in technical fields.

“Dr. Utash and Gayle Goetz brainstormed the idea and gathered a small team to put their vision into action,” Greg Schmidt, director of the Lab, said. “Soon the FutureMaker Mobile Learning Lab trailer was developed, and the effort evolved into a permanent team of dedicated individuals with unique talents.”

Evergy, Textron Aviation, AT&T, Koch Industries and several other organizations signed on to sponsor the program, which began steadily growing in size and popularity (and continues to do so).

The Lab stays busy, sometimes rolling into career fairs, community festivals and even events like the Society of Women Engineers’ conference. Through its connection with NexStep Alliance, the program offers its career exploration resources to adults pursuing a GED or taking English as a Second Language (ESL) courses.

Coming to a Classroom Near You

The 80-to-90-minute programs are mainly designed for 7th grade and up and are particularly well-suited to 8th and 10th grade curricula, though 5th and 6th grade classes are included on occasion.

Following an introduction, students are split into two groups and alternate between a classroom experience using 3D augmented-reality computer simulation and hands-on exploration. Visits end with a 10-minute wrap-up to discuss age-group appropriate opportunities, resources and next steps.

During these visits, the team promotes state initiatives to increase participation in Market Value Assets and Industry-Recognized Certificate (IRC) programs. Through these, the state pays tuition costs for high school sophomores, juniors and seniors who complete career and technical programs in automotive repair, welding, robotics, drones and more. Students have the opportunity to graduate with an IRC such as a journeyman license or certified nursing assistant certification — or even an associate degree — already under their belts and are immediately qualified for jobs that pay up to $15-$20 an hour.

Like nearly everything, the program had to pivot to accommodate COVID-19 safety protocols.

“Pre-COVID, we’d have up to 18 students in the trailer sharing equipment, Schmidt said. “We quickly built a digital space and now deliver our program via livestream as well. On location, we simply moved the experience into a larger setting such as a divided gym or two classrooms.”

The Lab in Your Living Room: Resources for Parents

The FutureMaker Lab program model is currently geared toward students and educators, but it’s always looking for ways to include parents in the conversation.

“Often it’s parents who ultimately have the biggest influence over a student’s chosen career path,” Schmidt said. “We want to show them that, in this day and age and with clear trends showing the makeup of the workforce they’ll be entering, two-year colleges are a fantastic choice.”

Parents are encouraged to recommend the program to their schools, and to attend visits when possible. There’s also a selection of fun and informative videos on the program’s website for parents and kids to watch together.

“We do an ‘In the Field’ video series in which we tell you about a job that’s in high demand, explain its educational requirements and show you what it looks like in the field,” Schmidt said. “We’ve done one on cybersecurity specialists, one on IT help desk specialists and, in partnership with Evergy, one on linemen and drone piloting.”

What’s Ahead for the Lab

“Originally we’d take the trailer out to a location and give students a chance to try out welding or aviation coating and painting through simulators,” Schmidt said. “They could also place rivets in aviation-grade aluminum and see what it’s like to work in Wichita’s plants.”

These activities are still part of the program, but Schmidt is looking forward to adding more features soon. Additional videos are in development, and the team has completed alpha testing for a robotics and drone piloting program. They also have a module to address one of the state’s fastest-growing industries in the works.

“We’re beta testing an advanced manufacturing program where three groups rotate through a computer-aided design (CAD) programming lesson, a 3D printing simulator and a portable computer numerical control (CNC) machine demo to learn about subtractive manufacturing, Schmidt said.

Streamline Your Career Path

The FutureMaker Lab seeks to communicate that in today’s workforce, a technical education is a strong choice and its value is rising. 

“We want students, parents and teachers to know that while a four-year university is the right option for many students, there are tuition-free programs for well-paying, high-demand careers available at two-year colleges for just as many,” Schmidt said. “And a lot of these colleges offer scholarships as well.”

A visit from the Lab is free but lodging and fuel expenses are requested for destinations more than 79 miles from its Wichita base.

To learn more or request a visit for your school or event, visit the FutureMaker Lab online.