Newton’s Road to Expand Under Networks Northwest

Newton's Road LogoTwo years ago, advanced manufacturer RJG Inc., in partnership with local nonprofit Newton’s Road, announced plans to supply a few 3D printers to Traverse City Area Public Schools.

The project – enabling students to create and produce solid objects from virtual computer designs, using problem-solving and critical-thinking skills – gained a life of its own. It’s grown to 38 printers in 20 schools and has reached more than 1,400 students, exposing them to technology and ultimately careers they might not normally consider, including manufacturing and engineering.

“So many of the careers of the future are relying more and more on technology. And the kids who have technology skills are going to have a real advantage in the economy of the future,” said Mike Groleau, co-owner and project manager at RJG, a Traverse City-based supplier of injection molding technology, training and resources.

“The other motive for this is, there’s manufacturers in our region really struggling to find qualified workforce. And so, really, what we’re trying to do is to create that technology workforce of the future to support the industry that is here, and is a critical part of our economy.”

Now, both the printer project and Newton’s Road are expanding down new paths.

Newton’s Road, which began in 2012 as a grassroots nonprofit to champion, support and increase access to K-12 science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) opportunities, last year became part of local workforce development agency Northwest Michigan Works!, a merger that brought it under the Networks Northwest umbrella and positioned for future growth.

As a nonprofit, Newton’s Road worked with the local educational community, businesses and others, on activities that included providing seed funding for robotics programs in schools, and organizing and hosting a northern Michigan STEM and arts-related film festival and accompanying trade show, said Bill Myers, former executive director of Newton’s Road and marketing manager at R.M. Young Co. in Traverse City.

The trade show connected and familiarized high school students with local businesses and their use of STEM skills, and it put a spotlight on some of the past manufacturing innovation in the area, Myers said.

He said businesses sponsorship dollars from the film festival and trade show helped pay for summer student education opportunities at Michigan Technological University in Houghton, and teacher scholarships for continuing STEM education and training.

Newton’s Road also helped pay for some teachers to attend a week-long intensive summer 3D printer training course at Michigan Tech, Myers said. And the nonprofit was a proponent of starting a local version of national Manufacturing Day, an event now in its third year in which students tour local manufacturers and learn about operations and career options.

“We believe we created an excellent foundation, an excellent concept,” Myers said. “We got to the point where I think we all felt that there was certainly a lot more opportunity for Newton’s Road to make an impact…(and) thought it was best aligned with Networks Northwest and their work. It just seemed to be the best fit as far as an organization that would be able to pick up Newton’s Road and run with the ball and take it to the next level.”

Myers and some other former Newton’s Road board members remain involved in an advisory capacity.

Terry Vandercook, director of operations at Northwest Michigan Works!, said Networks Northwest can provide organizational resources, visibility via the Networks Northwest website and other communication and marketing support, and convene partnerships and connections as it does with other programs and services Networks Northwest facilitates and manages in the 10-county region.

One opportunity being eyed: Developing a new partnership between schools and industry, in the area of coding. Coding involves writing the language used to create computer software, mobile applications and Web pages, and in northwest Michigan, software developers and programmers are among the in-demand jobs employers seek to fill.

Newton’s Road can be a pipeline for developing STEM interest in young people, help them recognize viable and interesting careers, “and hopefully keep them in the community as well,” Vandercook said.

“You’ll see Newton’s Road as we move forward…you’ll see us extend beyond just 3D printing and coding,” he said. “I think we’re going to continually see the opportunities increase, and the organization get larger.”

Newton’s Road 3D

Also building is the 3D printer project, now called Newton’s Road 3D and the beneficiary of a $5,000 planning grant from Rotary Charities of Traverse City, awarded in 2015 to Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District, or TBAISD, on behalf of the project, said RJG’s Groleau.

A prime objective, he said, was to move beyond “a loose collaboration of educators and industry partners. We realized if we were going to grow the program, we would need additional funds and a structured organization to make that possible.”

Working with NorthSky Nonprofit Network, a Rotary Charities program that provides consulting, professional development and other services, an organizational structure and fundraising plan were established and the initiative became a program of Northwest Michigan Works!, which acts as fiscal agent and provides administrative and other support.

Groleau said a steering committee of representatives from education, industry and Northwest Michigan Works! oversees the primary activity of the printer program and expects this fall to launch a fundraising effort for $90,000 needed to reach a $150,000 annual budget. He and parents Rod and Judie, three of RJG’s principal owners, are contributing the remaining funds, Groleau said.

As the printer program has unfolded, RJG’s owners have provided support that includes funding an independent contractor who coordinates the program, and 3D printer teacher training and technical support.

Financing over the last two years, including funds from RJG and TBAISD, has totaled about $80,000 to provide staffing and support roles, Groleau said, including the purchase and donation of several printers. An additional $209,758 in in-kind support has come from several sources, including $82,295 from TBAISD and $14,055 from TCAPS, which has played a critical role in piloting the project, Groleau said.

The new raised funds will go to several areas, including additional people to provide teacher training and technical support, and teachers’ development of model projects that better integrate 3D printers into classroom activities and support educational standards. The idea is that teachers could implement the model projects as they address certain areas, like teaching geometry through a project that entails creating pulleys and gears with the 3D printer, he said.

In some cases, the raised funds will help subsidize the cost of the plastic feedstock used by the printers. In 3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, objects are built up in layers from an initial virtual design and are produced using materials like plastic.

Groleau said that through the 3D printer initiative, students have produced creations ranging in complexity from introductory projects like designing a little house or Christmas tree ornament, to small cars that competed in a “gutter derby” that also served as an exercise in applied physics, to robotics and quadcopters, helicopters propelled by four rotors.

TCAPS’ Shelly VanderMeulen, who has been involved with the 3D printer project and is TCAPS elementary materials center coordinator, said the printers make students “think out of the box.”

Students see unlimited possibilities to what they can make with the printer, VanderMeulen said. The exposure teaches them “not to be afraid of using technology,” she said, and teaches skills “that they can use in any work field,” like problem-solving, thinking creatively and learning from mistakes.

Drea Weiner, STEM education coordinator for Newton’s Road 3D, the program will grow by a few teachers this year but the main focus “is on developing infrastructure, making sure the teachers are getting the support they need,” and activities and events for students.

Amy Lane is a freelance journalist and former reporter for Crain’s Detroit Business, where she covered business, state government, energy and utilities for nearly 25 years.