Talk to students about STEM careers and watch their eyes glaze over. But show them what these opportunities look like in real life and it’s a whole different ballgame. At least, that’s true with the student-focused partnership between Governors America Corp. (GAC), a veteran-owned, Massachusetts-based, global manufacturer of innovative engine control products, and Spark Photonics Foundation, a Waltham-based non-profit introducing the exciting fields of photonics, semiconductors and advanced manufacturing to the next generation of U.S. workers.

Twice per semester, GAC opens its doors to science and physics students from Duggan Academy, Impact Prep Middle School and The Academy at Kiley in Springfield, giving them an insider’s look into advanced manufacturing careers.

Darci Morrissette, manager of quality and continuous improvement at GAC, said, “We show the students what we do daily, trying to connect things they are interested in with what we do. We customize each tour based on students’ interests. They always have lots of questions and are very engaged. Of course, the pizza lunch doesn’t hurt!”

Students are divided into small groups and tour the plant’s machine shop, electronics assembly department and mechanical assembly department. They enjoy demonstrations, get to experience tools and products hands on and hear from people working in each area. Morrissette also provides an overview of the Quality Department, and talks about her career trajectory, beginning as an operator on the floor when she was 20 and now serving as part of the senior management team.

“My story often resonates with students because they like to see a success story that doesn’t start with a college degree,” she said. “We talk to them about what we look for when we’re hiring, and how we like to promote from within.”

Demonstrating his commitment to manufacturing in the U.S., GAC’s President and CEO, Sean Collins, always tries to spend time with the students himself.  

“Getting kids excited about manufacturing is key to the future of our nation,” said Collins. His passion for manufacturing shows when answering questions like, “Did you always want to work in a factory?” He explained he has worked at all the individual jobs and loved each of them from shipping to assembly. “We have to build products in the USA to stay strong. Making things is important to our country.”

Vanessa Mahoney, senior program instructor at Sparks Photonics Foundation, said partnerships like the one with GAC are essential in its mission to further STEM education. 

“GAC puts on a phenomenal program for our students,” she said. “It’s very interactive with tours, trivia and hands-on experiences. The students usually leave excited, and many say they’d like to work there.”

There are three major components to the Spark Photonics program:

  • Through problem and product workshops, students identify a problem and conceptualize a product solution. 
  • Students go on two field trips each semester, one to an education partner (Springfield Technical Community College and Western New England University currently participate) and one to an industry partner, like GAC, to get a taste of future education and career opportunities. 
  • At the end of the program, student groups pitch their final business plan to a panel of experts.

Spark Photonics Foundation works with teachers in gateway communities in Massachusetts, including Springfield and Worcester. To date, more than 500 students have completed the program. 

“We’re looking for more advanced manufacturing, semiconductor and photonics companies in Massachusetts willing to work with us,” said Mahoney. “We want to create an ecosystem to bolster our local STEM workforce.”