Make it work: New center at Austin Community College introduces students to in-demand careers

ACC’s Make It Center aims to give people of all ages the chance to have hands-on experiences with a variety of fields, from manufacturing to health care. It’s set to open to the public this fall.

By Becky Fogel, KUTJuly 12, 2023 10:30 am, , ,

From KUT:

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Austin middle school students had an assignment: Navigate a Lego robot from point A to point B on a tabletop while avoiding obstacles.

At one table, four students huddled around the iPad they were using to control their small bot.

“We’re programming the Legobot to actually move around,” said Chintana, who was attending a career readiness camp at Austin Community College last month. “We’re coding it … using an app.”

Chintana and the other Austin ISD students competed at “The Forge,” a digital fabrication laboratory inside ACC’s new $6 million Make It Center. The center at the Highland campus opens to the public this fall, but in the meantime, camps like this one and other groups can schedule a time to use the space.

“I think it’s really immersive with all the technology and stuff, ” Thorne, another student at the camp, said. “I think it can really teach people about technology and manufacturing.”

Amaya Austin / KUT

Raafeh Ahmed helps Austin ISD middle school students complete a coding activity at the Make It Center.

That’s the idea behind the Make It Center: to give people a hands-on introduction to high-demand careers in Central Texas.

“We’re looking at featuring businesses and industries and then career paths within them,” Janelle Green, the director of the Make It Center, said. “In our showroom, we have advanced manufacturing and robotics; we’ve got biotechnology, biosciences, public and social services, skilled trades, business and entrepreneurship and health care.”

The 10,000-square-foot space is, of course, home to the fabrication lab, where people can tinker with robots and other projects. It has a virtual reality station where you can pop on a VR headset and try out different careers.

There’s also an area where aspiring firefighters or scientists can try on a uniform or lab coat. For anyone considering a job in health care, there’s a gurney — complete with a dummy patient. Plus, it’s hard to miss Pepper, the humanoid robot visitors will eventually get the chance to program. (Pepper can dance, talk, decipher human emotion and may one day rule us all.)

Green said the center’s goal is to engage middle schoolers and college students, as well as adults who may have taken a break from school or are looking to change careers. She said she hasn’t seen anything exactly like this center before.

“We believe it’s trailblazing and kind of new,” she said.

A collective desire for kids to succeed

Austin Community College first announced plans for the Make It Center in 2021. The idea grew out of a partnership with Roy Spence, the co-founder of GSD&M advertising. Spence also founded the Make It Movement, a nonprofit that seeks to introduce middle- and high-school students to higher-earning career paths.

Spence said he got the idea for the Make It Movement while traveling around the U.S. in 2019. He was trying to find something most people could agree on.

“Finally one day it hit me that maybe the only thing we as Americans and parents agree on — whether you’re left or right or middle or whatever — we all want our kids to be successful,” he said.

There is data to back that up. A Pew Research Center survey released in January found 88% of parents say it is extremely or very important to them that their children are financially independent as adults and find a job or career they enjoy.

And, increasingly, getting a higher paying job in Texas requires more than a high school degree. The group Texas 2036 estimates more than half of the jobs in the state currently require a postsecondary credential, whether it’s a certificate or associate’s or bachelor’s degree.

So, Spence approached ACC administrators, including Chancellor Richard Rhodes, about ways to introduce secondary students to various career paths. They started talking about creating a center. Spence said it was important to find a way to show students what’s out there, instead of just telling them about it.

“If you get involved — whether it’s law or welding or construction — the data is clear,” he said. “If you get involved, you start understanding it and that builds excitement and confidence.”

Green said ACC collaborated with community-based groups and business leaders to develop the center. They even consulted with the Thinkery in Austin and the DoSeum in San Antonio, she said, because both children’s museums focus on hands-on learning experiences.

Brandon Whatley, dean of Design, Manufacturing, Construction and Applied Technologies at the college, said he was trying to wrap his head around the best way to showcase the technical workforce programs his department offers, from welding and construction management to engineering technology.

“We were really talking about what kind of technologies are out there and available,” he said, “anything from virtual reality to actually hands-on putting something together or running a 3D printer, or something of that nature.”

Take manufacturing, for example. Whatley said people have different understandings of what manufacturing is. And, he added, they often don’t know about all the career opportunities that fall under that umbrella.

“A space like this can kind of open one’s eyes to the different subsets or facets of that industry, collectively,” he said.

Whatley also said the center gives ACC the opportunity to get in front of students who are still making decisions about what to do after they graduate high school.

“We want to make sure that they’re well informed and that they have good opportunities to look at their options,” he said. “Growing up, I didn’t have that luxury of having any idea what was out there for me.”

Will it work?

At the ribbon-cutting event for the Make It Center in May, ACC Provost Monique Umphrey said many people are figuring out what they want to do with their lives.

“We’re creating a space where every student can find their purpose, can connect with their passion and have a vision for a brighter future,” she said.

She described the center as “the future of career exploration,” adding it will help close the gap many businesses in Central Texas are facing between the number of available jobs and qualified workers.

Spence said he thinks every community college should have something like the Make It Center.

But will exploring the fields showcased in this space prompt people to pursue those careers? Green said the college is planning to track just that — whether people who visit the center sign up for classes at ACC.

“We’ve been working with our enrollment management team to design the check-in process and what data we need, so that we can see what the conversion is for guests who come in this space and then end up enrolling,” she said.

The Make It Center is slated to open to the public this fall, likely in September. Green said she wants visitors to be inspired by what they experience.

“I hope people walk away with hope and optimism for their futures,” she said.

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