East Mississippi Community College, local employers and K-12 partners are teaming up with NextFlex to implement FlexFactor, a learning program that encourages students to pursue science, technology, engineering and manufacturing (STEM) fields.
NextFlex is a consortium of companies, academic institutions, non-profits and state, local and federal government partners with the shared goal of advancing the manufacture of flexible hybrid electronics in the U.S., according to the company’s website. NextFlex is one of eight Manufacturing Innovation Institutes established by the Department of Defense Manufacturing Technology Program as public-private partnerships.
“NextFlex is proud to be partnering with East Mississippi Community College to bring our STEM outreach and recruitment program, FlexFactor, to the Golden Triangle,” NextFlex Director of Workforce Development, Education and Training Emily McGrath said. “This region is experiencing high growth in advanced manufacturing activity, and we are excited to be a part of addressing workforce development challenges for employers and the creation of opportunities for local communities. EMCC’s leadership in building a connected community of engaged stakeholders is driving the development of the robust relationships that define manufacturing hubs and we are looking forward to seeing the region emerge as a national leader in manufacturing and technology development.”
The FlexFactor program requires students to work in small teams to identify real-world problems, conceptualize a hardware device to address the problem, identify a target market for the product and engage in customer discovery research.
To guide device conceptualization and business model development, students engage with industry advisors from local manufacturing companies who provide a real-world view of their companies and the skills needed to work there while also assisting in the development of each team’s device.
At the end of process, which can take between two and six weeks, the students showcase their product concepts in a “Shark Tank” like pitch to local industry and business leaders.
EMCC launched FlexFactor in early June at Camp AMP, a series of one-week camps taking place this summer at The Communiversity, the college’s 145,638-square-foot building dedicated to training students for careers in advanced manufacturing. Camp AMP introduces middle and high school students to manufacturing and engineering methods.
Some of the product proposals generated by the Camp AMP students participating in the FlexFactor program included the Flexistraw, which removes contaminants from water and allows the user to track water intake and the MicroTracker, a sensor embedded under the skin of pets that transmits a signal to the pet owner’s phone.
Elliott Hutchins, 15, a rising 10th grader at Oak Hill Academy in West Point who participated in Camp AMP, was working on a FlexFactor team preparing to pitch an idea they dubbed Betamilk, which would alert retailers or customers if milk had spoiled.
“It is a sticker with a flexible computer chip on cartons of milk that would monitor temperature,” Elliott said. “If milk goes above 45 degrees Fahrenheit for two hours, bacteria can reproduce and the milk is now spoiled. The sticker would change colors to let you know that you might not want to drink it.”
EMCC Vice President of Workforce & Economic Development Dr. Courtney Taylor, who was named a 2021 NextFlex Fellow Awards recipient for her work with the FlexFactor program, helped onboard the program at The Communiversity and sought out partnerships with area K-12 schools, which will implement FlexFactor this fall.
"Our hope is that this program allows students in local schools to understand the opportunities available to them within the region,” Taylor said. “Between the technician jobs available and the engineering education available at Mississippi State University, kids need to know they don’t have to leave the area to be successful and we are going to band together as a region to show them.”
FlexFactor is subject neutral and can be taught in any class, such as English, mathematics or science. The program requires deep partnerships with K-12 schools and the goal is to expose all area students to the potential for employment in STEM fields.
Columbus Municipal School District Superintendent Dr. Cherie Labat said officials there are grateful for the opportunity to participate and excited about the potential benefits to students offered through FlexFactor.
"It is important that we provide access to skills that lead directly to economic mobility,” Labat said. “FlexFactor provides real world experiences for students, allowing them to make more informed choices about college or the workforce. When students are afforded the opportunity to explore and create with hands-on activities that pulls in their general academic knowledge, amazing things happen.”
Mississippi State University is also partnering in the program, as are officials at area industries. The program will not only benefit students, but will help provide local industry with skilled workers, Golden Triangle Development LINK Chief Operating Officer Macaulay Whitaker said.
“Programs like FlexFactor are instrumental in early introduction to high-skill career opportunities,” Whitaker said. “Having our workforce ecosystem all supporting an effort like this, with our K-12, college and university all working together, creates a system that introduces a future employee not only to the FlexFactor work, but to the workforce pipeline in the Golden Triangle.”