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When Sneha Prabha Narra wanted to talk to third, fourth, and fifth graders about manufacturing, she had to find a way to make the subject appealing and easy to understand. The assistant professor of mechanical engineering who conducts research in metal 3D printing decided that cookies could do both. She explained that the flour, sugar, and butter ingredients were materials. The mixing, forming, and baking were processes, and the cookies were the product.

Introducing grade school students to engineering and manufacturing is one of the ways that Narra and other faculty associated with the Manufacturing Futures Institute (MFI) fulfill their education mission, which extends beyond training Carnegie Mellon students to also educating school age students who will be needed for the high-tech manufacturing workforce of the future.

Much of Narra’s work in metals additive manufacturing processes that use powder and wire as the raw material input is conducted at Mill 19, Carnegie Mellon University’s manufacturing research facility located at the former site of the J&L steel mill in Hazelwood. Not far from Mill 19 is the Center of Life, a non-profit organization that serves Hazelwood and its surrounding communities with academic and enrichment programs in music, arts, and technology.

In December, Narra and several of her Ph.D. students launched a new outreach program to get students there excited about engineering and manufacturing.

After an initial session to meet the students and introduce their program, Narra and her team brought 3D pens to their next visit to help explain the 3D printing process. The students used the pens, which work like glue guns, to make rings, eyeglasses and Christmas ornaments.

The activity was such a hit that the kids didn’t want it to end. They clamored for the chance to do it again during the next session. They continued the activity the following week when they also got to learn about a laser scanner that could be used to create digital files of their faces, hands, and classroom objects that they could print later.

Sarah Crawshaw, the education programs manager at the Center of Life, said the kids loved it.

“The hands-on activities were fantastic,” said Crawshaw who added that the activity was so popular that the center may nix a plan to buy hummingbird feeder kits so that they can purchase 3D pens instead.

Crawshaw says working with outside organizations like CMU exposes their kids to experiences and ideas they wouldn’t have otherwise. She’s excited to continue working with Narra to bring more outreach activities to their summer programs later this year.

The Center of Life was founded in 2001 by Tim Smith, who has said that his philosophy regarding kids is to simply nurture their natural talents and then connect them to opportunity. In 2021, the Center of Life was one of just a few local organizations chosen to receive financial support from MacKenzie Scott, the former wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos who gave away $2.7 billion to “high-impact” underfunded organizations.

The new partnership is beneficial to Narra and CMU as well. Narra was looking for ways to create unique community-tailored outreach programs that are sustainable and enables her to track student learning over a longer period.

She found the ideal way to do that when she met Smith, a close ally of the university and MFI, during President Joe Biden’s visit to Mill 19 in January 2022. The two met again along with the rest of the Center of Life team later in the year and began discussions about how they could partner on developing a pilot outreach program. With support and encouragement from Sandra DeVincent Wolf, executive director of the MFI, Narra launched the program, which she says she is eager to continue to grow.

These programs are a real win-win. We are committed to being an active and valuable member of the local community, and these partnerships are helping us nurture and grow these relationships.

Sandra DeVincent Wolf, Executive Director, Manufacturing Futures Institute

Wolf said, “These programs are a real win-win. We are committed to being an active and valuable member of the local community, and these partnerships are helping us nurture and grow these relationships.”