GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (GRPS) — Studying STEM has introduced Innovation Central High School junior Andre Walker to worlds he never imagined.

And at a press conference in late March at his school, he spoke about the role both his high school and his teachers have played in his growth as a scholar.

 “The reason I chose STEM is because it’s very diverse,” he said. “I don’t want to be an engineer. I want to be a musician. I want to produce music. I want to make music. But everything you do has STEM in it. STEM has taught me a lot. STEM rocks.”

One of Walker’s teachers, Elisabeth Giem, lead STEM instructor at Innovation Central High School, had a smile on her face as her scholar spoke.

And later she reflected on what he had to say.

All students find their own path, and when they can see that every new encounter can be a place they find success, or can open a door to a new interest, they see they control their future by what they choose to interact with,” she said. “It is pleasing to see students get those a-ha moments or find some appealing information or tool that is presented because that is another step in lifelong learning.” 

Since the start of the 2022-23 school year, Innovation Central scholars have had access to a new Machining and Fabrication program, part of a $6 million dollar appropriation by the state of Michigan in 2021 in the School Aid Fund Budget (PA 48 of 2021), which was crafted with bipartisan support from the Michigan Legislature. The award doubles to 33 the number of schools participating in the manufacturer/educator partnership-driven SME PRIME initiative.

Giem said that the grant funds brought new equipment scholars previously did not have access to, something that allows them to learn new skills in a supportive environment.

“We are very pleased that SME PRIME has chosen GRPS and the Academy of STEM to help inspire, prepare and support our students in exploring and gaining skills in the advanced manufacturing field,” she said. “The SME PRIME program prepares our students for local, skilled, manufacturing employment.”

Giem added that the program also provides student memberships in the Society of Manufacturing Engineers and opportunities for scholarships for further education.

At the March press conference, Giem and Walker joined Innovation Central High School principal Jason McGhee and Innovation Central student Ociel Romero in praising the SME PRIME efforts and the amazing things happening at their school and in GRPS.

Also speaking were Art Maisano, Program Manager for the SME Education Foundation; Mark Huizenga, State Senator, 30th District, State of Michigan; Bill Rayl, Michigan Manufacturers Association; and Shelley Wooley, Director of Educational Programs for the SME Education Foundation.

Giem and fellow Innovation Central STEM teachers Mark Dykstra and Mike Larson also showed a nice overview video about STEM activities at the high school, and Giem outlined some of the things that a $6 million appropriation will mean not just for the high school but also for local and state manufacturing and other industries as GRPS graduates either go on to college or advance into the workforce.

She also thanked her advisory board for flagging the SME PRIME grant opportunity in the first place, including board member Omar Hall who first brought it to her attention.

Hall, a Jackson native who graduated from the University of Michigan with an engineering degree, came to Grand Rapids a little less than a decade ago for work and said he was glad to be able to give back to Grand Rapids.

He also said he loves the Innovation Central model because it gives scholars a chance to be surprised about what their future might look like.

“I remember being a high school junior and not knowing at all what I wanted to do,” he said. “And then an internship put me on a path I hadn’t really considered. I want these high school scholars to know it’s okay to not have everything figured out, and I’m grateful that this grant will open up more possibilities for them.”

Innovation Central student Ociel Romero agreed.

“Our STEM academy is one of the best academies in this high school,” he said. “The skills they teach you can really help you excel in your future whether that’s university or college or just applying for a job. The things they teach us, it is all worth being in this academy.”

Giem said that Romero’s remarks were right on.

She noted that the SME Foundation is focused on helping secondary education students start careers in manufacturing with an eye toward filling an estimated 2.5 million jobs that will be available by 2030. And the foundation’s SME PRIME Outcomes Report indicates that as of 2022, 91% of PRIME seniors pursue manufacturing post-high school—either through a manufacturing-related degree or by directly entering the workforce.

The Foundation worked with the Michigan Manufacturers Association to create opportunities for deep engagement between schools and industry, and the MMA’s Rayl said he and his team are all-in when it comes to Innovation Central.

“What I’ve seen here already is phenomenal,” he said. “And I’m here to tell you that MMA is a partner with you at this school. We’re here to help you connect to the manufacturing community for whatever you need. We’re part of this school, and we’re here to help, to make a difference. Our members need talented people, and you have talented students. I look forward to working with you for years to come.”

Huizenga sounded the same themes in his remarks.

“Programs like this to inspire the next generation is truly what it’s all about,” he said. “The state of Michigan is committed to ensuring we have a workforce that is in place to help our manufacturing, and what manufacturing says it needs is talent. Programs like this build a talent pipeline that we need to run our next generation of manufacturing, and Grand Rapids is very fortunate to have his new innovation center. Congratulations to GRPS on this really incredible program.”

For McGhee, the Innovation Central principal, the remarks, and the program funded at his school by SME Prime, provide both confirmation and validation of the many good things happening on his campus and at GRPS.

“I love the idea of collaboration,” he said. “In education we cannot do this on our own. We definitely need the support of our communities. This program is a great example of that, and my team has been hard at work to make this happen.”

After the formal portion of the press conference, Innovation Central students demonstrated some of the projects and tools they are already working on thanks to the new partnerships. Walker’s demonstration of a universal robot was definitely one of the highlights for a variety of guests, including GRPS board member José Rodriguez and GRPS Superintendent Leadriane Roby.