Uniquely Abled Academy & STEMbassadors Build Workforce

December 09, 2021
  • Krista Maurer
    By Krista Maurer
    Account Executive Workforce Education
    Tooling U-SME


We’ve been highlighting workforce development programs across the country that are providing exciting career paths to employees and helping employers build the talent pipeline they need.

Today, we want to introduce you to two more inspiring programs: the Rhodes State College Uniquely Abled Academy in Lima, Ohio, and a STEMbassador initiative in Ventura, Calif. 

Uniquely Abled Academy

The goal of The Uniquely Abled Project, founded in California by Dr. Ivan Rosenberg, is to shift the paradigm of thinking from “disabled” to “uniquely abled.”

Rhodes State is the first college in Ohio to partner with the organization to create its own Uniquely Abled Academy (UAA).

At UAA, highly functioning autistic individuals learn to program, setup and operate CNC machines, combined with using quality control instruments, shop mathematics and blueprint reading.

“The program moves highly functioning autistic individuals into good paying manufacturing jobs and a career that they can stick with for the rest of their lives,” said Lew Modic, Project Manager/WCOMP, Rhodes State College.

The typical characteristics of those on the spectrum are a perfect match for operators of CNC. UAA provides the instruction, learning, and testing for students to achieve technical proficiency, as well as work readiness skills and job placement assistance.

This nontraditional program helps build the manufacturing workforce to fill Ohio’s need for labor. Graduates qualify for several entry-level positions, including machine trainee, machinist apprentice, CNC operator, and CNC programmer.

“We help educate employers who work with people with autism, and help students so they can work in a professional environment,” said Modic. “The program shows the kids, families and society that they can do it.”

The UAA program at Rhodes State was started in April 2021 by John Wheeler, associate coordinator of quality initiatives and project management in workforce development and innovation at Rhodes State. The free 16-week program is the first outside of California.

It includes 420 hours of in-class instruction led by a CNC instructor, plus 20+ hours of job readiness, soft or “power” skills, site visits, and open laboratory.

The curriculum was provided in part by Tooling U-SME. Students were prepared to take the NIMS Safety and Measurement test at the end of the course.

Five students, ages 18 to 24, completed the course with four now pursuing manufacturing jobs. Three of the four are currently employed with local manufacturers as machinists and operators. One other student has received job offers and is working through transportation challenges. The final of the five graduates decided to stay at his current job in the restaurant industry.

In May, Ohio Lieutenant Governor Jon Husted visited with students to learn more about the program. UAA plans to launch another session in late spring or early summer.

“Uniquely Abled Academy opens a door that would never have opened, building confidence with participants,” said Modic. “Local employers are desperate for people to work, and we ask them to keep an open mind and give our graduates a chance.”

He added, “Our goal is that these folks never go unemployed.”

If you are interested in starting a similar program, Modic welcomes you to reach out to him via email. 

STEMbassadors Bridge Education & Business

When we last visited with local nonprofit STEMbassadors, a regional program supported by the South Central Coast Consortium, they were producing critical face shield equipment for local healthcare workers during the early days of the pandemic.

STEMbassadors, a student-managed, 501(c)(3) company based in Ventura was founded in 2017 and continues to focus on integrating the academic rigor of Ventura Unified School District (VUSD)’s CTE programs with the technical and occupational knowledge and skills necessary to students’ future education and careers.

“At STEMbassadors, we help schools integrate disruptive technology with curriculum,” said Alex Wulff, founder and president, STEMbassadors. “It’s authentic learning.”

An initial bridging program will be incorporated into two of Ventura’s established CTE programs — Foothill Technology’s D-Tech Academy and DATA Middle School’s Makerspace. Both have a strong history of entrepreneurism and access to advanced equipment like LASER, CNC, waterjet, Vinyl, 3D printing and scanning, CAD, Wire EDM, and sublimation printing.

The curriculum will cover advanced design, machining, and fabrication skills; rapid prototyping of products and skills based on business owner input; research manufacturing costs, pricing, production schedules, and production capacity; and formulation of a basic business plan and sales pitch.

Business owners and industrial representatives help educate students through presentations, tours, and sharing expertise on product development, marketing, pricing and more. They will also be available to evaluate student prototypes and business plans.

The key to making this partnership work, said Wulff, is the creation of an off-campus manufacturing, retail, and training facility for students, teachers, and community members.

This 1,600-square-foot makerspace/fabrication lab, named The Idea Center, is located on the Avenue in Ventura and managed by STEMbassadors, Inc. It is expected to open in February or March 2022.

“This is the highest marginalized, disadvantaged area,” said Wulff. “It’s in need of opportunities for residents.”

In addition to giving students the opportunity to become independent contractors and entrepreneurs who can sell goods and provide services directly to businesses and consumers, the Center will also provide training for adult learners.

“We will provide programs to help community members reenter the workforce by teaching them practical skills that allow them to be successful,” said Wulff.

STEMbassadors’ STEM education and industry partnership was recently recognized as an exemplary model by the State of California in the 2020 California Economic Summit’s Partnerships for Industry and Education (PIE) Contest.

“The relationship between CTE, and the local business/industry is transformed when learning becomes real for students and all parties benefit in concrete and meaningful ways,” said Wulff.

We are excited to keep our eyes on The Idea Center and see it open in early 2022.

For more details on these programs and others, please reach out to us.

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