• Wichita State University was awarded a $250,000 from the Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing Institute, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Defense, to build a workforce development database. 

  • The database will include educational opportunities and resources that provide necessary skills for today's robotics careers. 

  • The project will help bring an understanding of emerging technologies and diversify the Kansas economy.

  • Several students gained applied learning and interdisciplinary collaboration experience while building the database. 

Newswise — The Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing (ARM) Institute, which receives funding from the U.S. Department of Defense, recently awarded Wichita State University $250,000 to assist in creating a workforce development database focused on compiling a map of educational programs and resources that provide skills required for today’s advanced robotics and manufacturing careers.

The database will be used to populate a website that will, according to ARM, “make it easy to learn about educational programs that provide the needed competencies and skills for manufacturing careers, and, in future versions of the website, help employers find the best candidates for their available manufacturing positions.”Dr. Victoria Sherif, project coordinator and assistant professor of educational leadership, and Dr. Jason Herron, assistant professor of educational psychology, have been leading the project since February. Along with five graduate students from College of Applied Studies, School of Social Work, and Barton School, the team has been working to compile a list of more than 900 organizations with upwards of 2,000 contacts in a nine-state region.

The student team is comprised of five social science students — Treva Etsitty and Nirupama Akella, both doctoral student in educational psychology and leadership; Joana Lampe and Wendy Mcdaniel, master’s students in social work; and Ashruta Acharya, a master’s student in economics — who are collaborating, networking, collecting and analyzing survey information with engineering and robotics professionals and faculty members throughout the region.

“It’s translational science because the students on the team have to be very creative in the way they take the knowledge that they have already learned about research and about the field and apply it to a completely unknown field,” Sherif said. “It's impressive how they’ve adapted so quickly and successfully.”

Herron said that although the field of engineering is thought to be across the academic pond, the collaboration of the two fields a natural convergence 

“It’s actually really simple because our function as educational psychologists is to help with anything that has anything to do with training and instruction,” he said. “I understand how to do social science research, and they understand their content knowledge. We collaborate all of the time. I focus on my area of expertise, and I don't get into the engineering portion. It works out really well actually, and it's not a difficult transition.”

This is the fifth grant Wichita State has received from ARM, said Debra Franklin, associate vice president for strategic initiatives at the university. Three previous grants involved technology, and two — including the current database — involved workforce development.

Franklin said Wichita State’s membership in ARM, which is maintained by Wichita State’s National Institute for Aviation Research, is a significant driver for the university’s commitment to innovation and technology.

“The reason why we’re a member of ARM is because our advanced manufacturing economy will be increasingly using robotics and automation,” she said. “Understanding what technologies are emerging and being able to be aware and driving that is an important feature for our students and our regional economy." 

Wichita State is working with South Dakota School of Mines and Technology to sort through and reach out to the organizations and contacts for the northcentral region, which includes Minnesota, South Dakota, North Dakota, Iowa, Kansas, Colorado, Missouri, Nebraska and Wisconsin.

According to ARM: “The U.S. manufacturing sector faces a significant problem that has been compounded by trade challenges and the pandemic: a quickly growing skills gap. A 2018 report by The Manufacturing Institute and Deloitte found that 4.6 million jobs will need to be filled in the sector over the next decade, and 2.4 million of these jobs may go unfilled due to a lack of trained workers. Increasing the use of robotics will play a critical role in returning the U.S. to a global leadership position in manufacturing, but workers need to be trained to work alongside robots. This can only occur through a concerted effort to develop the needed workforce by identifying and standardizing the required competencies and skills, promoting and enhancing the educational resources, and sharing the available jobs in a comprehensive, yet easily accessible manner.” 

When it’s completed, the database, Sherif said, will be a tool for individuals to look for a program of their interests in robotics, advanced manufacturing or related career pathways, as well as learn about educational, professional development and employment opportunities nationwide. 

“It's also a great opportunity for institutions in post-secondary education to market and advertise their programs and actually tune programs based on a changing industry, industry trends and things of this nature,” she said. “From a research standpoint, I think it's a really neat opportunity for us to create an environment for our students to not just learn more about research and interdisciplinary and multi-institutional collaboration across the United States, it also gives them an opportunity to actually apply the knowledge about research into the actual research setting.”

Research students also have the opportunity to hone their critical thinking skills, while making informed decisions and judgments when they collect the data.

Joana Lampe — a graduate student in social work from Leichlingen, Germany — works as a lead canvasser, which means “finding as many contacts in different organizations and entities to include in the survey.”

Though she said she didn’t have a background in engineering or robotics, her training as a social worker has helped her with the project.

“There was, and still is, a learning curve,” Lampe said. “Being a generalist social worker, I was trained not in one specific area, but to adjust to new situations and adapt quickly. New experiences are always interesting to me, because I believe that if we just listened more, we could learn so much from each other. I have certainly learned a great deal about Google spreadsheets and general research approaches.”

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