Program Introduces Middle Schoolers to Technology and Manufacturing

Michael Sheffield
Staff writer- Memphis Business Journal

Michael Sheffield
Staff writer- Memphis Business Journal

Photo caption: Students learn basic robotics through the Kids’ Exploratory Learning Institute at Southwest Tennessee Community College.
Students learn basic robotics through the Kids’ Exploratory Learning Institute at Southwest Tennessee Community College.

Two years after launching its Industrial Readiness Training program, a group of faculty members at Southwest Tennessee Community College began to explore the possibility of reaching students before they reached high school.

The idea, which was originally discussed by Ayana Alshams-Brooks, a training specialist at Southwest, would help identify students with an interest and the aptitude for manufacturing or information technology careers. But in order to ensure those kids took the right classes in high school, they needed to be reached before they got there.

“After a lot of planning and brainstorming, we decided to do a one-week pilot program that focused on IT, manufacturing and art,” Alshams-Brooks said.

The pilot program, known as the Kids’ Exploratory Learning Institute, or KELI, took place last week with 14 middle school students. In addition to classroom instruction in manufacturing and IT, the group took a trip to Unilever’s Covington ice cream manufacturing facility. That visit was unique because it’s the first time Unilever has let anyone under 18 on its manufacturing floor.

For the in-class work, the work included building a computer and network cable, while also programming a robot arm to perform simple tasks.

Joann Massey, a parent whose twin daughters were involved in KELI, said the exposure the program provided allowed them to become familiar with science, technology, engineering and math studies they normally wouldn’t have interest in.

“They’ve continued to Google network engineering and want to become more involved outside the classroom,” Massey said. “That exposure gives them a perspective I wasn’t able to provide.”

John Churchill, director of corporate training and continuing education at Southwest, said the decision has already been made to continue the program next year, while tracking students who went through it as they progress when school starts. The next step would be acquiring a sponsor to make sure it can continue as a free program.

“We thought we had a great test case,” Churchill said. “Now we’ll track them to see if the fire is in their bellies.”

Alshams-Brooks said when the organizers asked students for ways to improve KELI next summer, they said it wasn’t long enough.

“The fact they said that let me know they enjoyed themselves,” she said. “We envision possibly doing something during the school year on Saturdays. But we want to expand this into something we do every summer.”

Michael Sheffield covers bioscience and biotechnology; manufacturing; tourism and hospitality; and sports business. Contact him at

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