In a fortunate turn of events, Bryce Green was standing on the metal, maze-like balcony above the floor of the bustling Ford Rouge Factory on Tuesday instead of sitting in his normal freshman class at Kenmore-Garfield High School.
Bryce, 16, wasn’t initially chosen by his teachers to take the daylong field trip to Dearborn, Mich. But when a student dropped out and a spot opened at the last minute, he was picked as the lucky alternative.
“I don’t know why, but I feel so excited,” Bryce said as he gazed over the factory workers while car parts whizzed overhead. “This feels like heaven right now.”
As Akron prepares to roll out its College and Career Academies next fall, district partners are starting to put the learning model to the test with immersive career learning experiences that expose kids to career opportunities.
Last week, nearly 90 students from local high schools took a trip with local sponsors to the Henry Ford museum complex in an attempt to uncover potential options to pursue.
ConxusNEO, a nonprofit that is facilitating partnerships to support the College and Career Academies, organized the field trip with the hopes of showing kids the full process of producing and selling a Ford truck, from developing the design to preparing it for purchase.
Part of the trip was targeted to Akron Public Schools freshmen, who have to decide which pathway to focus their education on when the academies become available to all high schoolers.
While the district's partnership with Ford Motor Co. Fund made the trip to the Ford facilities possible, ConxusNEO wanted to include other districts on the trip with a heavy manufacturing focus.
High schools in Tallmadge, Kent and Barberton each chose 10 to 20 students to attend. Ellet and Kenmore-Garfield high schools each brought 20 students — mostly freshmen — who were chosen based on their level of academic engagement or interests, which were gauged at the beginning of the year with a survey.
A few days before the students made the three-hour trek, they toured the facilities of one of the five local industries that sponsored the trip: OGS Industries, S&A Industries and Steere Enterprises, all local car part suppliers; and Al Spitzer Ford of Cuyahoga Falls and Klaben Ford Lincoln Inc. of Kent, both local car dealers.
The Greater Akron Chamber and ConxusNEO also helped fund the trip.
“The hope is that between all this exposure and meeting with companies that are local to see what goes into making a truck, they might see something that sparks their interest,” said Jenny Stupica, the director of manufacturing engagement for ConxusNEO.
A representative from each of those companies then gathered in the chilly dark parking lot Tuesday morning to embark on the trip with the students.
Like most students on the trip, Bryce was thoughtful but unsure of his future beyond school. His dad is a mechanic, his grandpa was in the Air Force and he is sandwiched somewhere in the middle of deciding whose path to follow.
”There are so many options. I’m just trying to level it down to what I want to be,” Bryce said.
Stepping into the factory about 10 a.m. that morning already began to shape his decision.
He and his group paused at each checkpoint on the self-guided factory tour and marveled at the intricacy of the operation: the robotic arms that attached each massive car part to the frame; the trucks that moved slowly along the 4.5-mile-long assembly line while workers inspected each one; the banging and clanking and buzzing that marked the end of each cycle.
Local company representatives walked along with the students to help explain parts of the process they understood and, if possible, point out just where their parts were used in the production.
Some students were disengaged from the start, paying little attention to the tour. Others, like Ellet freshmen Kayla Suansing, Rani’yah Clayton and Mercedes Pollock, weren’t completely interested in manufacturing, but they kept an open mind as they moved through the complex.
“I didn’t realize so much teamwork was involved,” Kayla said during the factory tour. “I didn’t really think about all the tiny things that go into it.”
The afternoon portion of the trip was meant to emphasize skills needed in the workplace, expose students to different careers at Ford beyond manufacturing and give students the chance to interact with employees.
Despite being corralled with prizes and candy, students filled the hall room with disinterested chatter after lunch as an emcee attempted to engage them in activities surrounding worksheets they completed before and during the tour.
After that, Ford employees sat down with the students for roundtable discussions, although there weren’t enough employees present to fill every table.
At the end, the employees sat on a panel to openly answer questions about everything from benefits and salaries to their career paths and passions.
Many found the three-hour session helpful, though somewhat tedious.
“That part was a little long,” Ellet student Rani’yah said.
Students ended their day with a two-hour trip to the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation, where they saw a range of vehicles, from old Fords to the Rosa Parks bus.
“In ninth grade, the students need as many experiences as possible before making a decision,” said Kenmore-Garfield freshman seminar teacher Chris Sims as he perused the museum. “More time needs to be spent in experiences and less time being talked at … Their faces lit up when they came in here.”
On the last leg of the trip, Stupica and Sue Lacy, the president of ConxusNEO, were already brainstorming ways to improve the experience for next year.
“I think it was a great pilot,” Lacy said. She added that she would like to see more Ford employees engaged throughout the entire trip next year, as well as more planing with administrators to prepare teachers and students for the experience.
But for those who were engaged, the seven-hour experience had already made a marked impression.
“You can see it starting to click and come together,” Stupica said.
Although Rani’yah still wants to stick with her initial path of pediatrics, by the end of the trip, both Mercedes and Kayla were reconsidering theirs.
“I like the idea of inventing and coming up with ideas,” said Kayla, who was initially considering the hospitality field, but began to think differently after hearing about the salaries and experiences of Ford employees.
And Bryce, who was torn between the military and manufacturing, was nearly sure of his decision after the trip.
“The entire day has gone great. I’m glad I was chosen at the last minute,” Bryce said. “I think I’m gonna go with manufacturing.”
Theresa Cottom-Bennett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @Theresa_Cottom.