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InnoCrate Introduces Composites and Manufacturing to K-12 Students

The excitement on their faces is priceless.

That’s how Vanina Ghossein, program administrator in the Department of Mechanical, Aerospace and Biomedical Engineering (MABE), feels every time she watches school-age students participate in the STEM/STEAM activities she helped develop and provided to the students through the new workforce development project, InnoCrate.

The project is developed in partnership with the Institute for Advanced Composites and Manufacturing Innovation (IACMI-The Composites Institute) with funds from the US Department of Defense Industrial Base Analysis and Sustainment Program. InnoCrate introduces science related activities and composites in a fun, hands-on, experiment-driven way to K-12 students. It is designed to address the growing need for work force in advanced materials and manufacturing.Innocrates boxes

With Ghossein’s lead, InnoCrate launched in early 2023 and is being piloted at three schools in Knoxville: Beaumont Magnet Academy, Vine Middle School, and Austin East High School. These schools were chosen based on their population’s diversity.

“This project is important because not all kids have the same opportunities to learn,” said Ghossein. “I want these kids to have the opportunity to do more than what’s expected of them. I want to show them they can do anything, including becoming an engineer one day.”

Participating schools are provided activity kits, or InnoCrates, that are a set of totes filled with portable teaching tools that include materials for experiments, teacher guides, student workbooks, and instructional videos. The kits are divided by grade levels K-2, 3-5, 6-8, and 9-12 and contain everything a classroom would need for hands-on activities.

Activities for elementary students include air or rubber band powered cars made from recycled materials, kinetic sand, and color changing slime. Those for older students require working with specific equipment and skills used in the composites industry, such as computer-aided design (CAD) modeling, computerized numerical control (CNC) machines, and processing equipment like injection, vacuum forming, and extrusion and compression molding.Innocrates Students

Most of those activities can take place in the classroom, but some are done at the Fibers and Composites Manufacturing Facility (FCMF) on the UT campus and the Collaborative Facility located at IACMI’s headquarters in Knoxville. There are 12-18 lesson plans in each kit, along with reusable and consumable items. The materials move along with the students through each grade. For three years, Ghossein, staff members, and engineering students will provide support to the teachers and help with the activities when needed.

“It’s practical learning,” said Romeo Fono Tamo, postdoctoral research associate in MABE and co-leader of the project. “Hands-on learning makes a big difference with the students. I love seeing how it triggers their minds and makes them excited and ready to learn.”

The InnoCrate curriculum and lesson plans were all developed by UT-ORNL Governor’s Chair in Advanced Composites Manufacturing and MABE Professor Uday Vaidya in collaboration with IACMI-The Composites Institute, Ghossein, and Fono Tamo. They collaborated with graduate and undergraduate students at the FCMF and UT’s College of Education, Health, and Human Services to ensure the lesson plans met Tennessee’s academic standards, and with schoolteachers to determine which activities were appropriate for each grade. Students and teachers can provide feedback after they complete an activity, so the curriculum is continually improving.

In 2023, Ghossein and her team worked hard to get the program going and had a soft launch with more than 2,000 students from K-12 participating. They also held “Train the Teacher” sessions for grades K-2 and 3-5 teachers. In early spring, Ghossein and her team plan to roll out the pilot program to grades 6-8 and 9-12.

When the pilot is complete, the goal is to have InnoCrate offered in schools nationwide. IACMI-The Composites Institute wants to see the program grow and reach as many school-aged kids as possible.