ICAMS teams with Bird Inc. to prepare middle schoolers for the future

Published: Jun 16, 2023 4:00 PM

By Carla Nelson

In a white lab coat, black glasses, and an enthusiastic demeanor, John Cranston has the undivided attention of a room of sixth-graders at J.F. Drake Middle School in Auburn.

“Think about your life in reference to your tombstone,” he says. “It will reflect the year you were born, the year you die, with a dash in the middle. There is a beginning and there will be an end, but what’s important is that dash in the middle. We all have dashes, but you have the choice to fill in that dash however you want. It’s all about choices and you have people in your life, such as teachers and parents, who are here to help support you in making those choices.”

Cranston is the program director of Bird Inc., a 50-minute factory outreach activity through the Auburn University Interdisciplinary Center for Advanced Manufacturing Systems (ICAMS). ICAMS trains students and industry personnel in advanced manufacturing technologies. One aspect of ICAMS’ mission is to introduce manufacturing to new generations.

Through the Bird Inc. activity, Cranston assists students in producing a decoy owl through a fictional company. He teaches the students that every manufacturing company requires employees who serve different roles, from sales to engineering. In addition to producing the owl decoy, students decide on salaries and production costs, and determined how many owls their company would need to produce in a set timeframe to turn a profit.

“The choices you make determine the opportunities you can take,” Cranston tells the students. “You can learn something from every experience.”

Cranston is an experienced materials and process engineer who is skilled in materials science, systems engineering, research and development, and aerospace. He has collaborated on NASA contracts and served as the materials and process engineer for the James Webb Space Telescope. Cranston and Greg Harris, director of ICAMS, met while working together at the University of Alabama in Huntsville.

Cranston created Bird Inc. after President Bill Clinton’s School-to-Work Opportunities Act legislation was signed into law. Through the program, Cranston spoke with more than 20,000 students in eight years and won numerous awards. Harris knew that Bird Inc. would be a great asset to ICAMS.  

“John is so great at interacting with students and getting them excited about future opportunities,” Harris said. “I wish we could clone him and send him to every middle school in the country.”

For three weeks in April and May this year, Cranston relaunched the Bird Inc. program at J.F. Drake Middle School. He gave five presentations per day, a total of 30.

After hearing Cranston’s passion for influencing the next generation to see past their current circumstances, or see the potential for their future, J.F. Drake Middle School Principal Sarah Armstrong said she knew Bird Inc. would be beneficial to the students.

“For our kids to have an experience that might help steer them toward STEM careers or workforce development opportunities that they didn’t know about, that was something I thought was important,” Armstrong said. “The students have loved it. Even the ones that are harder to keep motivated in the classroom have loved it.”  

Drake student Poncho P. said he loved how interactive the program was.

“I learned the many parts of the manufacturing process and how it all works together,” he said. “This taught the idea of income equals more product and increased manufacturing leads to more income.” 

 Harper W. said it taught her more about the financial aspect of business.

“I learned that finances are a big issue when making a business because you need to think about what you spend and make because it would need to be a product that people want to buy,” she said.

ICAMS plans to implement Bird Inc. throughout additional middle schools in surrounding counties soon with a long-term plan that reaches farther.

“Long-term, what we would like to see is if this has had an effect on this group and what they choose to do in the future,” Harris said. “Obviously from an ICAMS perspective, we’re interested in manufacturing. Whether they’re engineers or go into business, manufacturing needs all of those skills. We hope to scale Bird Inc. and train others to implement the program to have at least one person at each of the seven workforce regions in the state to be able to go to all of the middle schools in Alabama and do this every year.”

Media Contact: Carla Nelson, carla@auburn.edu, 334-844-1404

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