ATE PI Eric N. Wooldridge Earns the National Science Board’s Science and Society Award

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Eric N. Wooldridge, principal investigator (PI) of four Advanced Technological Education (ATE) grants at Somerset Community College in Kentucky, received  the Science and Society Award from the National Science Board (NSB) on May 1 with Sheri McGuffin, the STEM coordinator at AdvanceKentucky, an initiative of the Kentucky Science Technology Corporation.

Somerset Community College Professor and ATE PI Eric Woolridge received the NSB’s 2024 Science and Society Award.

Wooldridge and McGuffin were honored for their work since 2020 spreading high impact and accessible additive manufacturing education to community colleges and high schools across Kentucky. The award recognizes “their successful effort to support and encourage people in Kentucky to join the STEM workforce.”

During a panel discussion with NSB members and other award winners on May 2, McGuffin reported that their AdvanceKentucky Influencer Model had trained 201 community college, secondary, and elementary school educators and introduced 3D printing concepts to 5,000 students. Their collaboration has also resulted in the first state-endorsed career and technical education pathway for additive manufacturing.  

In response to follow-up questions from NSB members, Wooldridge suggested the model could be replicated to help the nation grow its semiconductor fabrication workforce, especially given the advancements in low-cost virtual reality technologies. This is the focus of one of his current ATE grants.

“Community colleges are truly nexus points that have the power to directly affect K-12 educators, students, and even the economic profile of a region,” Wooldridge said. (See his comments and McGuffin’s to the NSB at 1:08 of this recording of the board's meeting on May 2.)

The National Science Board advises the president and Congress and sets the policies of the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), the independent science agency. NSF’s largest investment in two-year colleges is the ATE program, which focuses on improving technician education.  

Award Recognizes “Substantial Contributions”

Wooldridge and McGuffin were given their award during the National Science Foundation’s Awards Gala at the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery in Washington, DC. The National Academy of Inventors also received a Science and Society Award. An NSB press release states the Science and Society Award “honors individuals and organizations that have made substantial contributions in the arts, media, education, or training programs to increase public understanding and appreciation of science and engineering in the United States.”

“Our two awardees are dedicated to expanding STEM opportunities and fostering new innovations with both economical and societal benefits,” Dario Gil, the chair of the NSB’s External Engagement Committee and senior vice president and director of IBM research, stated in a press release. “Their unique approaches not only help stimulate the innovation economy, but also make science and engineering more inclusive and diverse,” he stated.

Eric Wooldridge and Sheri McGuffin use the trailer purchased with ATE grant funds to promote additive manufacturing.

During a Zoom interview on May 3, Wooldridge said, “The whole board is just amazing, not only for their own individual accomplishments, but their very real passion for the board’s mission. It was evident in questions and discussions we had both before and during the panel. They are striving to make a difference.” To him it also seems there is new interest at the federal level in community colleges as sources of innovation.

A Patent Holder, Too

Wooldridge and his colleagues at Somerset recently received patents—the first awarded to Kentucky Community and Technical College System (KCTCS) faculty for inventions developed in association with their teaching of additive manufacturing. NSB members applauded when Wooldridge shared this news after Paul R. Sandberg, a renowned neuroscientist who founded the National Academy of Inventors (NAI) in 2010, described NAI’s growth to 4,600 members worldwide and the organization’s encouragement of “inclusive innovation” at academic institutions and nonprofits.

Wooldridge is a professor at Somerset Community College and director of KCTCS’s Additive Manufacturing Center. A multi-discipline professional engineer and licensed architect, Wooldridge currently holds six patents.

During the interview, Wooldridge said he anticipates that more KCTCS faculty will seek patents as the additive manufacturing curriculum he developed with an ATE grant encourages faculty and students to create real products, not trinkets, and to interact with industry.

“It's the power of 3D printing. Once you have a 3D printer, suddenly an idea can become a physical object. And with that physical object you might say, ‘You know what? I could sell this.’ And so what do, I do? I go patent it, maybe even start up a new business. That's what it boils down to. Once a person uses the printer enough, it expands their imagination and they realize there is no limit to what they can create, no matter how simple or extraordinary,” he said.

COVID Pivot Facilitates Statewide Scale Up

Wooldridge’s inventiveness as an educator came to public attention in spring 2020 in the early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic when he used 3D printers to make personal protective equipment (PPE). This community service attracted interest in additive manufacturing. He wrote a successful proposal for a $130,000 Perkins grant to equip and teach faculty at five community colleges to make PPE using 3D printers.

McGuffin and Wooldridge receive the award from NSB Chair Dan Reed in the Renwick Gallery, Washington, D.C.

About this time he also reconfigured the professional development that was the focus of his Mobile AMP ATE project. Because in-person workshops were not possible, Wooldridge and his team made video recordings of all the lessons and shipped 3D printers to the educators who had signed up for the project’s professional development. The educators learned at their own paces and practiced their skills on the machines they had received. Months later when in-person meetings were permitted, the educators brought the machines to Somerset for an in-person workshop.

Wooldridge likens having instructors learn 3D printing at their own paces remotely over a long period rather than relying solely on multi-hour, in-person lessons in the trailer as “crock-pot cooking instead of microwaving ... slowly simmering and growing it, makes it stick.”

To make it easy for teachers to learn additive manufacturing and add lessons to a wide variety of existing courses, Wooldridge and McGuffin refined the program to facilitate statewide scaling of additive manufacturing education.  

First, they’ve kept costs low and made adoption by educators as easy as possible. The current 16-week remote introductory course uses free software, no textbook, no set class times, and does not require navigating a specific learning management system. After a teacher completes several assignments, they are sent an inexpensive 3D printer to use during the remote course and then install in their classrooms.

Wooldridge and his team of instructors oversee the course. They manage to keep up with questions from teachers across the state because—except for some different assignments—it is the same course that is taught to in-person and remote Somerset Community College students. (The first course is part of a 16-credit hour certificate that prepares people to use additive technologies in various fields.)

Wooldridge refers to the additive manufacturing curriculum as a “living document.”

“That allows me to—if you say, ‘Hey I don't understand this. This is not working. Can you help me out?’ —not only can I get on online with you and fix it, but more importantly, I can actually capture that fix, and then update everybody all at once. So we are constantly improving the training material.” 

Most importantly when a new piece of technology hits the market that he sees is viable, he adds info about to it to the course. “With a few clicks of the button, I have now updated everyone. So we're no longer like two years behind what industry is doing in the field, we're actually leading industry because we can update everybody all at once.”

Subtle Connections between ATE Projects

Wooldridge is now applying what he and McGuffin learned while sparking additive manufacturing programs in Kentucky to two other ATE projects he leads: Improving Technician Skills in Advanced Manufacturing with a Low-Cost Virtual Reality Platform and Collaborative Research: Resource Collaborative for Immersive Technologies (RECITE). He is also a co-principal investigator of Collaborative Research: EPIIC: Developing an Eco Engine Jumpstart Kit.

The connections between the ATE projects are subtle, but evident in a “big picture” approach.

“The reason that we were having, we're having so, so much success in the 3D printing additive world is because we made the decision to always focus on something that was scalable. So we never told the teachers, ‘You need to go buy a $5,000 printer.’  It was always like a $500 printer, $700, something that is affordable so that you can get started,” he said.

“The reason we're doing RECITE is also because our other NSF grants for low cost VR, is because VR technology allows us to do the same thing but with many other industries,” he said. He cited the expense of computer numeric controlled devices in advanced manufacturing programs and clean rooms for micro- and nanotechnology education programs as potential places where virtual reality (VR) and extended reality (XR) technologies could be used to provide introductory learning experiences to students.

He’s now working with a coalition of ATE educators to find the right people to develop VR software that is affordable and flexible for teaching an array of technologies.

They’re still trying to figure things out a bit like he was in the early weeks of COVID when he had to rethink how he would teach educators in the counties along the Kentucky-Tennessee border about additive manufacturing, and keep working toward his long-term goal of a Kentucky-wide initiative. 

“It’s little steps. That’s the key thing and the encouragement for anybody. You take little steps, not big leaps, where each little step comes with a thoughtful improvement over the previous. But you just have to start somewhere and take that first one,” he said.

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    ATE Impacts

Last Edited: May 6th at 8:00am by Madeline Patton

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