Bird Inc. is back with a $1.7M DOD grant for two years

Published: May 14, 2024 12:00 PM

By Dustin Duncan

The manufacturing industry is projected to have two million vacancies by 2025. John Cranston and the Interdisciplinary Center for Advanced Manufacturing Systems (ICAMS) want to change that statistic. 

Armed with a $1.7 million project from the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) to revive the Bird Inc. program created by Cranston in 1996 to widen students’ worldviews to possible manufacturing jobs available after finishing high school, ICAMS looks to visit more than 28,000 sixth-grade students in Alabama throughout the next two years. 

Bird Inc. is a 50-minute activity that simulates a manufacturing environment. Students participate in a classroom business. The class includes a company president, sales and marketing professional, engineer, tool and die machinist, technician and quality control specialist. The rest of the class are potential investors. 

“We teach them important business concepts they can use in their lives such as profit and loss, marketing and manufacturing real products,” Cranston said. 

Two men prepare to perform a class activity.
John Cranston (left) and Kyle Castellano (right) prepare to perform the Bird Inc. during a class activity at J.F Drake Middle School in Auburn.

At the end of the activity, students produce a rigid foam polyurethane decoy owl using a two-piece mold developed by ICAMS and determine whether their business was successful. 

Bird Inc. was created after President Bill Clinton signed the School-to-Work Opportunities Act in 1994. From 1996 to 2004, Cranston spoke with over 20,000 students in eight years and won numerous awards. 

ICAMS revived the program in 2023 as a beta project at J.F. Drake Middle School in Auburn. The program introduced more than 700 sixth graders to concepts related to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) jobs.

 A teacher helps a student pour a liquid into a plastic container.
John Cranston (right) helps a student pour a liquid into a plastic container during a Bird Inc. during a class activity at J.F Drake Middle School in Auburn.

Greg Harris, director of ICAMS and chair of the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering, said value is created in manufacturing. 

“We take ideas and raw materials and turn them into products people desire and pay for through manufacturing processes,” he said. “Innovation takes place where the work is done. We need to share these ideas with students and provide them with the opportunity to choose careers in this value-creating industry. Bird, Inc. is a great way to introduce the next generation of workforce to the manufacturing business enterprise.”

With the new DOD grant, Bird Inc. will be showcased in two Alabama Workforce development regions: Region 1 (North Alabama) and Region 5 (East Central Alabama). According to Kyle Castellano, Bird Inc. program manager, ICAMS hopes to reach more than 28,000 students in the next two years — effectively 48.5% of Region 1’s and 75% of Region 5’s sixth-grade population. 

“There is a lack of people going into manufacturing in this country, and we need more people going into that field as a point of national security — just to support projects that require American workers to work on American DOD projects,” Castellano said.  

 A student smells a polyurethane decoy owl produced in the class.
A student smells a polyurethane decoy owl produced during the Bird Inc. during a class activity at J.F Drake Middle School in Auburn.

Harris said the U.S. industrial base is the foundation of the country’s freedom.    

“We learned during the pandemic that it is detrimental to our society when we cannot manufacture the things we need,” he said. “A strong industrial base is necessary to ensure we are ready when the country needs our manufacturing capabilities to provide the systems needed to ensure our national security.”

Cranston will stay on the project as the state coordinator. He will help hire and train three additional presenters to travel around the workforce development areas to deliver the program. His role will also include developing a sustainability plan to scale Bird Inc. into additional Alabama regions and other states. 

 A teacher talks to a group of students.
John Cranston talks to a group of students during a Bird Inc. during a class activity at J.F Drake Middle School in Auburn.

Castellano said ICAMS will create a Bird Inc. organizational structure and playbook to show how the program works and why moving forward is important. He said the playbook is essential for the program to grow not only into a state program but also a national program. The key to the playbook is the presentation kit, which includes the aluminum mold, liquid foam and other materials.  

Cranston said he’s thrilled to see something he created more than two decades ago with significant funding and the potential to grow bigger than ever. However, he said the program boils down to piquing young students’ interest in something they may not have known was possible. 

“I believe that hands-on experience will help a child connect what they are learning in school,” Cranston said. “I think they need to know — just like anyone in that situation — that they are learning a specific topic for a reason. Once they have a goal in mind, it helps them have a purposeful connection to the content.”

Media Contact: Dustin Duncan ,, 334-844-2326
teachers helps student in white lab coat

John Cranston (left) teaches a student at J.F. Drake Middle School in Auburn during a Bird Inc. class activity in 2023.

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