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DOD Partners With Underrepresented Youth on STEM Initiatives

  • Published
  • By David Vergun
  • DOD News

NextFlex, the Department of Defense Flexible Hybrid Electronics Manufacturing Innovation Institute (MII), is partnering with the nonprofit Capital Youth Empowerment Program (CYEP) in Washington, D.C., to launch an advanced manufacturing education and workforce training outreach initiative. This unique initiative focuses on underrepresented communities in the Northern Virginia region and will guide participants into Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM)-based education and career pathways.

"The Department of Defense is proud to support this initiative through our public-private partnership with the NextFlex Manufacturing Innovation Institute," said Dr. Robert Irie, deputy director of Strategic Technology Protection and Exploitation (STP&E) in the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering (OUSD(R&E)), which oversees the MIIs. "This initiative, along with other MII education and workforce development programs, will build a future STEM workforce, ensure a resilient manufacturing economy, and promote an enduring national defense industrial base." 

The MIIs are public-private partnerships that seek to bring reform and spur innovation in the military-industrial base in accordance with the National Defense Strategy, said Tracy Frost, director of the Office of the Secretary of Defense Manufacturing Technology (OSD ManTech) Program. OSD ManTech oversees and supports the MIIs as part of STP&E in OUSD(R&E).

Since the establishment of the first MII in 2012, the number of DOD MIIs has grown to nine, with the federal government providing over $1B in initial and follow-on agreement funding to the Institutes. A network of over 1,270 organizations from academia, industry and state governments has provided an additional $1.74B in matching funds.

Formed in 2015, the NextFlex MII is a consortium of companies, academic institutions and non-profits as well as state, local and federal government partners with the shared goal of advancing the manufacture of flexible hybrid electronics in the U.S., Frost said.

Flexible hybrid electronics is a technology for assembling electronic circuits by mounting them on flexible plastic substrates. This allows the circuit board to conform to any number of desired shapes, yet still perform as traditional rigid circuit board.

In addition to technology development and commercialization, NextFlex and the other MIIs also focus on talent development for the advanced manufacturing sector. "It is becoming increasingly important to the innovation capacity of the United States to create impactful and inclusive strategies for developing STEM-based talent," said Frost, referring to Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.

One of the biggest challenges in workforce development for science and technology is successfully engaging underrepresented populations. "The U.S. relies on a steady pipeline of innovative, creative and skilled individuals to maintain our position as global leaders in advanced manufacturing," said Emily McGrath, NextFlex Director of Workforce Development. "We want to ensure we are providing the support and pathways necessary to capture the talent available in our large and diverse population."

To address this challenge, NextFlex created FlexFactor, a STEM outreach program, designed to familiarize students with advanced technologies and the education pathways leading to careers in the advanced manufacturing sector. The program is active in seven communities across the nation, and will be launching in 11 more communities in 2021. To date, the program has reached over 5,250 students nationwide.

"NextFlex and its partners are expanding FlexFactor, a proven middle and high school outreach program for growing the talent pool in manufacturing engineering, to 30 labor markets nationwide," said Dr. Jagadeesh Pamulapati, director of Laboratories and Personnel in OUSD(R&E). "Manufacturing Engineering Education Program partners, such as NextFlex, play an important role in developing and fostering the advanced manufacturing workforce our Nation depends upon to maintain our technological superiority for years to come." 

The NextFlex partnership with CYEP will integrate FlexFactor into CYEP's outreach programming in order to reach underrepresented individuals and engage them in STEM pathways. "CYEP will help increase and diversify the STEM talent pipeline by recruiting underrepresented and underserved populations into the advanced manufacturing talent pool, emphasizing individuals who have not yet considered higher education or STEM-based careers," said Erick King, CYEP Executive Director. "This initiative will help build a strong and capable U.S. manufacturing workforce, which is a critical component of the national security innovation base."

The NextFlex-led initiative with CYEP includes "wraparound" services that provide the critical support many underserved and at-risk populations need in order to access higher education and employment and break the cycle of generational poverty. These wraparound services include parenting classes related to childhood education, assistance with food and housing insecurity, and transportation. This foundational support is coupled with career readiness and professional communication training, economic stability workshops, and technical skills training. NextFlex selected CYEP as a local partner because of CYEP's success in working with young people, single parents, and community members in the National Capital Region. The project will formally kick off on April 1, 2021 and continue for five years if successful, said McGrath. "It will be evaluated on an annual basis for effectiveness in supporting participants as they achieve social and economic stability, moving into education and employment pathways over time. Our goal is to formalize an approach to successfully engaging underrepresented and at-risk populations with the STEM sector through a range of social and economic stability support services. Once we have solidified this approach and determine that it meets success metrics, we will export the framework to other underrepresented communities around the nation."

Broad STEM-sector participation is a critical focus for federal and state governments as it directly supports U.S. economic competitiveness, national security, and individual prosperity. In addition to supporting these important economic and national security goals, this NextFlex-CYEP partnership will provide individuals with an important pathway to financially stable, high-growth, and rewarding STEM-sector careers. 

"Strategic, intentional investments in STEM for underrepresented and low-income youth are essential to creating diverse and healthy economic ecosystems and provide economic opportunity for struggling communities," said King. "Social, educational and technical skill development are essential to a sustainable, inclusive growth path that benefits our entire Nation."