Skip to content
ascd logo

Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
May 1, 1996
Vol. 53
No. 8

What's Up in Factories?

A school-to-work curriculum that focuses on manufacturing is giving students a view of factory careers in the '90s, and it's not what they expected.

In Marysville, Ohio, high school students watch a machine stamp out the body of a car in a Honda of America factory. Wearing goggles, earphones, and battery packs, they walk in single file, looking at everything around them. The factory hums and rumbles. The youngsters watch in fascination as a finished car is driven onto rollers, or "dynamometers," and revved up to 60 mph for a final series of tests before being shipped out.
Their guide, Ginny Milburn, tells them that making these cars involves teams of people who stamp out the car body, install the engine, and assemble everything into the shiny new 1996 models. In this plant, employees, called "associates," are encouraged to suggest improvements in processes to maintain the quality of the final product. They are also encouraged to communicate with one another about what's working and what isn't. Playing an important role in the quality of the product they manufacture contributes to a high level of employee satisfaction.
At the end of the tour, the class meets with Milburn to ask her questions about manufacturing and the skills needed to perform various jobs. They discover that making cars—or any other product, for that matter—doesn't begin on the plant floor, and it doesn't end when the final item is shipped out of the factory. A product originates in the mind of an inventor or an entrepreneur, and it is developed in stages that include market research, design, engineering, and capitalization, before it is actually manufactured. The process ends with a sales team bringing the project to the market, hoping to stay ahead of the competition, and reaping enough of a profit to fuel the process so it can continue.

A Fresh Look at Factories

Only a week earlier, teams of these students were scrambling around their classroom in Westerville, Ohio, trying to find better, faster, and more efficient ways of putting a series of nuts and bolts together. To make their task more compelling, their teacher, Mary Ann Cunnigan, told them their product would be used to hold together a vital part of an airplane wing. Before that, students speculated on how a sneaker is made and then watched an MTV-style video in which two teenagers visit a Nike plant.
The school-to-work project that is fueling this speculation and discovery in classes is "What's Up in Factories? A New Look at the World of Manufacturing." This multimedia curriculum unit was developed by the PBS flagship station Thirteen/WNET in New York. "We see the Factories project as part of our mission to provide schools with materials and training that students might not otherwise receive," says Ruth Ann Burns, Director of WNET's Educational Resources Center. The project has prompted similar class activities and factory visits in Nashville, Atlanta, San Diego, Dallas, Columbus (Ohio), Lexington (Kentucky), Newark (New Jersey), and other cities.
To implement the program, Thirteen/WNET works with other local public television stations to offer training workshops to teachers at various sites across the country. This outreach program has already provided workshops and materials to more than 400 teachers nationwide. Additionally, we've sent more than 12,000 free curriculum guides to teachers. Although the majority of the workshop participants are high school teachers, 40 percent are middle school teachers who have volunteered for the program. According to Ann Mauze, WNET's Director of Outreach, the program is popular with educators because it offers a fresh look at manufacturing and at the opportunities the industry holds for high school and college graduates.
Developed with the support of the International Business Communications Council, a consortium of Japanese automobile and electronics trade associations, the unit is meant to help teachers of such courses as technology education, science, social studies, and economics to bridge the gap between the school environment and the fast-moving, bottom-line world of manufacturing.

What the Curriculum Offers

As Director of Educational Publishing at WNET, I was responsible for designing the curriculum and finding engaging ways of making it work. Even before beginning, however, my first question was: Why pursue this, especially if manufacturing is still as boring as I remember it? (During college, I occasionally worked nights in a soft drink bottling plant, and my fiercest memory is of a man sitting on a high stool, watching an endless conveyer belt of bottles and half falling off the stool each time he fell asleep.)
As we proceeded to talk with manufacturers, workers, teachers, and academics, I learned the answer. One: Manufacturing is undeniably an essential part of all our lives (in our first exercise in the unit, students are asked to find a single object in their classroom that isn't manufactured—an activity that pretty much ends with their finding a green plant). Two: We soon realized that in a growing number of factories around the nation, the old models have been thrown out. The assembly line on which individuals wither in boredom often has been replaced by teams of workers, all doing a variety of tasks; by frequent group sessions in which everyone is invited to help refine production processes; and by "just-in-time" systems in which products are developed on demand and parts are ordered only as they are needed. In other words, no more warehouses filled with parts waiting to be used. In short, manufacturing has changed, and so have the lives of people who work in factories.
The integrated curriculum package we developed includes a detailed teacher's guide (with student worksheets), a poster, and a 30-minute videotape. Next we created the teacher training program. The teacher provides students background and hands-on activities from the guide, while the MTV-style video brings lessons to life through archival and on-location footage. The unit contains four lessons and a step-by-step plan for locating and visiting factories. The lessons explore the history of manufacturing, its importance, the manufacturing process, new trends, and profiles of people in the manufacturing world who are experiencing real job satisfaction. The package offers teachers hands-on activities that help young people experience teamwork in fashioning a product.
In one activity, a team of students assembles a "product" made of washers and nuts on a large bolt. First, they pass it from person to person and time the process. Then they are given a few minutes to find better ways of working as a group to accomplish the same task faster. The lesson also invites young people to guess how a running shoe is made. They are asked to draw what they imagine would be the various stages of production. Then they are given a cartoon graphic in which a factory team fashions the sneaker from design to finished shoe. Finally, the curriculum offers a step-by-step guide that helps teachers identify factories in their communities, contact them, and set up visits. It also covers such topics as student safety, suggested clothing, maximum number of students, and follow-up.
In developing our package, we spent a good deal of time visiting factories and talking with plant managers and educators. We found that many U.S. factories have incorporated these new approaches to manufacturing. We also realized that manufacturing not only answers the need to make a profit. It is also related to the joy that people receive from putting things together and to the satisfaction that comes from accomplishing tasks in a team.
One of our advisors, Professor John Shook, in the Industrial and Operations Engineering Department at the University of Michigan, when asked about American companies incorporating new trends such as "lean manufacturing," said that virtually the entire manufacturing sector acknowledges that these inventory-reducing and time-saving methods are the wave of the future.
The idea of cooperation in work is of course appropriate to classroom learning as well. Cooperative learning projects are valuable in classrooms, with their emphasis on building collaborative skills through projects.

Factories Need People, People Need Factories

In the training sessions set up with PBS affiliates to familiarize teachers with the unit, teachers are introduced to today's world of manufacturing. They participate in several team-building, hands-on activities, watch the video, and visit area factories. In San Diego, California, teachers visited the Buck Knives factory and the National Steel and Shipbuilding Company; in Lexington, Kentucky, they visited Toyota; in Newark, New Jersey, they visited the Krementz Jewelry Company; and in Suwannee, Georgia, they visited the Oki Telecom company. In turn, many of these educators are taking their classes on factory tours.
Teachers are reporting successes in using the program with their students. In Irwinton, Georgia, Valerie Slappy, of Wilkinson County High School, used the materials with a class of 35 students in her Workplace Readiness Youth Apprenticeship Program. Her students visited the YKK Zipper manufacturing factory in nearby Macon, which rolled out the red carpet for the students. The kids were particularly interested in the zipper color-dying machines, which matched a zipper's color to the fabric. "I was amazed at how far we have come in technology," Slappy said, "but I'm happily surprised that human beings are still vital to the manufacturing process—to work the machines and to program them to do the necessary tasks."
One of Slappy's students, Jennifer Nesbitt, said of the trip, "I learned how fast we can get things done by working together." After seeing the plant, she realized the need "to work more with computers and technology, because every day things are changing, and it will make me more qualified for a job I choose."
Mary Ann Cunnigan, the Ohio teacher who arranged the trip to the Honda of America plant, said the entire episode was valuable because there aren't many factories in the area. "A couple of my students," she said, "expressed interest in pursuing manufacturing jobs after they graduate."
The manufacturers agree. Fred Monzillo, of the Ford Motor Company, in Edison, New Jersey, conducted a tour for the Factories program. "Most kids have no idea how products they use are made," he said. "They need to understand that manufacturing may be a good career choice for them." In some communities, plant representatives have been visiting schools to introduce the topic of manufacturing and to prepare students for their upcoming visits to the factory.
Recurring throughout the comments of teachers and students is a recognition of the importance in the workplace of such qualities as a willingness to take responsibility, punctuality, cooperation, effective communication, and ingenuity. Students were also surprised at the types of skills needed to work in manufacturing, like mathematics and computer literacy. School-to-work programs like "What's Up in Factories?" not only show students the importance of what they're learning in the classroom, but give them opportunities to explore possible careers.

Robert A. Miller has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

Learn More

ASCD is a community dedicated to educators' professional growth and well-being.

Let us help you put your vision into action.
From our issue
Product cover image 196009.jpg
Exemplary Curriculums
Go To Publication