Executive Briefings

Teaching Schoolkids About the Supply Chain

When she entered college 20 years ago, Cheryl Dalsin didn't have a clue as to what supply-chain management was all about. It's likely that she had never heard the term. Now, she's determined to make sure that today's students aren't similarly ignorant about a promising career opportunity.

Teaching Schoolkids About the Supply Chain

As an incoming college student, Dalsin's initial goal was to become a high school German teacher. She loved math and science, though, and turned to engineering "to not be bored." After some 15 years in the profession, she finally found herself in the world of the supply chain, serving today as senior technical program manager in that area with Intel.

At the same time, Dalsin wanted her two daughters, one of whom was starting the first grade, to have more opportunities for hands-on exposure to the sciences – and, more specifically, the supply chain. Drawing on a small team at Intel, she joined with some “liked-minded individuals” at Michigan State University, Arizona State University and MIT to create an in-class educational experience for students in that discipline.

The idea behind the Supply Chain Management Outreach Program was “to spark an awareness of supply chain at an early age,” says Dalsin. The initial focus was on the lower grades, although the project’s ultimate goal was to extend through secondary school, and possibly into the first year of college.

At the outset, the team came up with nine early-years units ranging from kindergarten to the eighth grade, to be implemented at three participating charter schools in Tempe and Mesa, AZ. They would consist of five core activities: managing a lemonade stand, overseeing a just-in-time Lego assembly, forecasting pizza demand, crafting a Lean manufacturing strategy for paper airplanes, and working at Intel for a day. For the Intel visit, students would don clean room suits and experience how the company packages and ships product. At the end, they would fabricate “wafers” – literally, cookies.

For the paper airplane exercise, students would examine various methods of manufacturing, based on set metrics and quality criteria. They would divide into teams and create multiple models, ultimately deciding which was the most suitable for high-volume manufacturing. In the process, they would learn of the many considerations attached to work in progress (WIP), including the need to complete one step before moving to the next.

The Lego exercise involves fifth through seventh-grade students designing their own prototypes for model cars. They follow a 25-piece bill of materials, solve relevant math problems, and participate in a “high-value manufacturing” game. Two teams, each with its own network, work with two sets of suppliers for sourcing parts. Also in the mix are a materials handler, production engineers, quality engineers and the inevitable buyer.

The goal of the Lego game is to build as many quality cars as possible within the allotted time. Most importantly, the kids learn about the often-unpredictable demands of the “customer.” Some are relatively lenient, Dalsin says, while others are so picky that they’ll reject a car if the angle of the antenna is wrong. Welcome to the real world.

The in-class activities will serve as the basis for an educational “kit” to be used at each grade level, complete with instructions and required materials. In addition, teachers and students fill out assessment forms that help program designers to determine the educational value, age-appropriateness and, not incidentally, degree of fun of the exercises at each grade level.

The program “has spread like wildfire,” says Dalsin. Multiple schools in Arizona, New Mexico, Oregon and California have signed on. Michigan State is using the Lego activity, guided by associate professor Judith M. Whipple, as part of its grandparents’ program, in addition to reaching out to local schools. Versions of the program are also underway in Vietnam, Malaysia and Ireland.

The next step is to extend the outreach program to the high school and early college levels. In that phase, students will learn about the supply chain of a cell phone. Engaging in hands-on simulations, they’ll acquire an understanding of such critical factors as supplier location, production lead time, the insourcing-versus-outsourcing debate and the cost of having too much inventory on hand. They’ll cope with random demand signals as they labor to meet customer demand. The activities will be supplemented by information about career paths in supply-chain management.

For all of the fun involved in the various exercises, the program has the serious goal of making students aware of a discipline that has flown under the radar at virtually every stage of K-12 education. Many students even enter business programs in universities without being aware of the existence of supply-chain management as a career.

Certainly the world doesn’t lack for graduate-level programs in supply chain, but the word has to be propagated all the way back to the youngest students. Dalsin says the outreach program can play a key role in solving the talent gap that’s plaguing so many organizations today, as they search for individuals who possess the qualities, knowledge and experience needed to run global supply chains today.

Step one is generating awareness at the earliest possible stage. Many such attempts have been made by educators and supply-chain professionals in the past. Let’s hope this one takes.

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As an incoming college student, Dalsin's initial goal was to become a high school German teacher. She loved math and science, though, and turned to engineering "to not be bored." After some 15 years in the profession, she finally found herself in the world of the supply chain, serving today as senior technical program manager in that area with Intel.

At the same time, Dalsin wanted her two daughters, one of whom was starting the first grade, to have more opportunities for hands-on exposure to the sciences – and, more specifically, the supply chain. Drawing on a small team at Intel, she joined with some “liked-minded individuals” at Michigan State University, Arizona State University and MIT to create an in-class educational experience for students in that discipline.

The idea behind the Supply Chain Management Outreach Program was “to spark an awareness of supply chain at an early age,” says Dalsin. The initial focus was on the lower grades, although the project’s ultimate goal was to extend through secondary school, and possibly into the first year of college.

At the outset, the team came up with nine early-years units ranging from kindergarten to the eighth grade, to be implemented at three participating charter schools in Tempe and Mesa, AZ. They would consist of five core activities: managing a lemonade stand, overseeing a just-in-time Lego assembly, forecasting pizza demand, crafting a Lean manufacturing strategy for paper airplanes, and working at Intel for a day. For the Intel visit, students would don clean room suits and experience how the company packages and ships product. At the end, they would fabricate “wafers” – literally, cookies.

For the paper airplane exercise, students would examine various methods of manufacturing, based on set metrics and quality criteria. They would divide into teams and create multiple models, ultimately deciding which was the most suitable for high-volume manufacturing. In the process, they would learn of the many considerations attached to work in progress (WIP), including the need to complete one step before moving to the next.

The Lego exercise involves fifth through seventh-grade students designing their own prototypes for model cars. They follow a 25-piece bill of materials, solve relevant math problems, and participate in a “high-value manufacturing” game. Two teams, each with its own network, work with two sets of suppliers for sourcing parts. Also in the mix are a materials handler, production engineers, quality engineers and the inevitable buyer.

The goal of the Lego game is to build as many quality cars as possible within the allotted time. Most importantly, the kids learn about the often-unpredictable demands of the “customer.” Some are relatively lenient, Dalsin says, while others are so picky that they’ll reject a car if the angle of the antenna is wrong. Welcome to the real world.

The in-class activities will serve as the basis for an educational “kit” to be used at each grade level, complete with instructions and required materials. In addition, teachers and students fill out assessment forms that help program designers to determine the educational value, age-appropriateness and, not incidentally, degree of fun of the exercises at each grade level.

The program “has spread like wildfire,” says Dalsin. Multiple schools in Arizona, New Mexico, Oregon and California have signed on. Michigan State is using the Lego activity, guided by associate professor Judith M. Whipple, as part of its grandparents’ program, in addition to reaching out to local schools. Versions of the program are also underway in Vietnam, Malaysia and Ireland.

The next step is to extend the outreach program to the high school and early college levels. In that phase, students will learn about the supply chain of a cell phone. Engaging in hands-on simulations, they’ll acquire an understanding of such critical factors as supplier location, production lead time, the insourcing-versus-outsourcing debate and the cost of having too much inventory on hand. They’ll cope with random demand signals as they labor to meet customer demand. The activities will be supplemented by information about career paths in supply-chain management.

For all of the fun involved in the various exercises, the program has the serious goal of making students aware of a discipline that has flown under the radar at virtually every stage of K-12 education. Many students even enter business programs in universities without being aware of the existence of supply-chain management as a career.

Certainly the world doesn’t lack for graduate-level programs in supply chain, but the word has to be propagated all the way back to the youngest students. Dalsin says the outreach program can play a key role in solving the talent gap that’s plaguing so many organizations today, as they search for individuals who possess the qualities, knowledge and experience needed to run global supply chains today.

Step one is generating awareness at the earliest possible stage. Many such attempts have been made by educators and supply-chain professionals in the past. Let’s hope this one takes.

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Teaching Schoolkids About the Supply Chain