Surrounded by middle school students laughing while building circuits and playing with robots sporting names like “Brother Feisty” and “Sassy Robot,” 12-year-old Alexis Magalei explains what she enjoys working with at Muskegon Community College’s Fab Lab—and it’s a downright impressive list that ranges from lasers and 3D printing to computer numerical control routers.
“I love the Fab Lab because you have access to all this machinery that, most of the time, you can’t find or can’t afford,” Magalei, who is home schooled, says during the Muskegon Community College’s second annual “STEM/Talent Pipeline Event,” which drew about 500 area students to learn about careers in manufacturing, agriculture and more last Friday, March 1. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.
“It’s a great place for kids to learn and to really gain some real life experience, things you can use for jobs,” Magalei continues.
MCC, in collaboration with the Muskegon Area Intermediate School District and the Muskegon Area Career Tech Center, hosted the STEM event at the Sturrus Technology Center and Fab Lab—a relatively new entrepreneurial hub that gives children and adults access to more than a half-million dollars’ worth of equipment for everything from laser etching and 3D printing to metal milling and robotics. Throughout Friday, the hundreds of middle school students met with representatives from local companies, the Fab Lab and MCC to explore possible careers in robotics, engineering, foundry, machining, and welding, among others.
For Jordan Larson, a 12-year-old student from Grand Haven, the event drove home his future career plans: game programming.
“You get to create something that other people end up playing and liking,” Larson, a member of the Fab Lab who attended the STEM event, says of game programming. “If you program games, you can start to make money from it if you get really into it. You can get a really good job.”
And while the STEM event is certainly about career exploration, it’s even more than that, Magalei and Larson say. It is, they explain, about students feeling empowered to make what they need, instead of solely relying on purchasing everything. It’s about knowing how to fix things on your own, about even being able to make your own product and potentially launching a company before you’ve even graduated from high school. And it’s about having a whole lot of fun.
“You’re gaining a lot of creativity and connection,” Magalei says. “It’s a great opportunity to get help from people who know so much and are so proficient in their jobs. Being at the Fab Lab can be part of my resume; it’s boosting my life. You can work a machine by yourself here; everyone is building skills here and learning all these new things. Now you have all these excellent people who are engineering their own design that could change the world.”
It’s that focus on creativity and independence that is exactly what MCC instructors want to hear from the students attending this event. Dave Stradal, chairman of MCC’s Business Department and Entrepreneurial Studies Program, says the event aims to emphasize the idea that entrepreneurship is an accessible career option.
“For the kids, we’ve told them they can join [the Fab Lab] and come down at night to make projects; STEM education is not limited to school hours,” Stradal says. “Our job is to make it fun so they want to come. We partner with groups like FIRST Robotics; those interested in robotics or coding can come here and join those clubs.”
All of that, Stradal explains, leads students to think outside the box and embrace a world in which they’re working for themselves.
“We want them to think about being an entrepreneur,” he says. “Hopefully, we grow entrepreneurs who grow products and services, launch them, and run them out of Muskegon.”
The event too is part of a larger goal to inspire students navigating a radically different economy than their parents.
“The old mindset was get enough education to get a job and then stop and go work,” Stradal says. “Typically, that meant a factory job, but that landscape is changing.”
Plus, the MCC educator emphasizes, entrepreneurship isn’t just about creativity in the workplace—it’s about breaking down racial and gender barriers and shattering glass ceilings.
“From an early age, you can own a business—certain ethnic and gender groups are told they can’t do that; to that, we say bull,” Stradal says.
Too, during the event educators and business leaders emphasized the idea that education and careers aren’t things you begrudgingly have to do: they can be an extension of what the children love.
“The idea isn’t so much about the linear path, but about what’s your passion,” Fab Lab Manager Chris Kaminsky says. “It’s tying passions, like video games, to STEM careers. They think it’s playing, but it’s learning.”