Advancing Tech Dreams

A Union-Driven Workforce Development Partnership for New York Students

In Micron’s Girls Going Tech Español at Onondaga Community College, eighth-grade girls from the Syracuse City School District make binary bracelets. Photo courtesy of Onondaga CC.

Thanks in part to the CHIPS and Science Act, which President Biden signed into law in August 2022, Micron Technology plans to build the nation’s largest semiconductor fabrication facility—and it chose a site in central New York. Realizing that this could open a wide array of career pathways to students in the region, leaders from the AFT, New York State United Teachers (NYSUT), the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), Micron, and New York state quickly developed a shared vision for introducing students to advanced manufacturing and semiconductors.

To learn about that vision and how it is coming to life, we spoke with David Chizzonite, Leo Gordon, and Robert Simmons. David Chizzonite, a former engineer, has been teaching at Chittenango Central Schools for 27 years—20 as a middle school science teacher and the past 7 as a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) specialist. He’s also the president of the Chittenango Teachers’ Association, the advisor for award-winning student robotics teams, and the coach for girls’ volleyball and boys’ lacrosse. Leo Gordon is the vice president of career and technical education (CTE) for the UFT. He was a CTE student, then completed a CTE apprenticeship to become a CTE teacher in information technology, graphic design, art, and architectural drafting. After several years with the UFT Teacher Center as a CTE instructional coach, and nearly three decades into his career, he was elected to his current position. Robert Simmons, who began his career as a middle school science teacher with the Detroit Public Schools, is the head of social impact and STEM programs at Micron Technology. He is also a scholar in residence and scholar of antiracist praxis at the School of Education at American University and a member of the Diversity Scholars Network with the National Center for Institutional Diversity at the University of Michigan.


EDITORS: Let’s dive into the heart of this partnership: the Advanced Technology Framework that schools and districts will use to develop their own career pathways in advanced manufacturing and semiconductor education. How did you develop the framework and how will educators use it?

LEO GORDON: The goal of this initiative is not just to prepare youth in New York to work for Micron but to introduce them to the many careers in and related to advanced technology. When the union began talking to Micron about creating new educational opportunities throughout New York, no one discussed Micron specifically; it was all about industry needs.

This is bigger than just education and bigger than just Micron—that’s why this collaboration is working. We have been talking about workforce development and how it aligns to education. That remained true as we developed the framework.

At our first meeting to develop the framework, there was a room full of educational leaders, superintendents, district content specialists, and principals talking about what we should do. As a former CTE teacher, the first question I asked was, “What about the teachers?” Absent the teachers, this conversation should not be happening because the teachers are the closest to the students.

Within a few weeks, we had more than 20 teachers contributing to a Google doc, dropping in whatever they thought would interest middle and high school students in learning about advanced manufacturing and semiconductors. Then we expanded to a larger group of content teachers with different specialties—AutoCAD, mechanics, programming, etc.—who refined the content and added ideas for projects that students would find engaging. With teachers now leading the framework development, we mapped out the necessary skills, whether young people want to go directly to work in the industry or go to college.

The biggest advantage of having Micron at the table is we all know education can’t pivot as quickly as industry. Micron will alert us to industry shifts in real time, and we’ll be able to shift curriculum instruction and materials so that the students’ skills are truly aligned to the industry.

Now that the framework is fleshed out and districts are getting ready to pilot it, we are positioning ourselves to be the national leader in the conversation. There’s never been a time in my history of almost 30 years as a CTE professional that we have had workforce development, industry, government, education leaders, and teachers all on the same page.

DAVID CHIZZONITE: I’m excited about the framework and the partnership with Micron because of the opportunities they create to expand our STEM courses and to put more students on the path to STEM careers. As a STEM specialist, I’ve had the opportunity to develop many new courses and programs at our high school, along with some new programming at our elementary and middle schools. My focus is bringing a lot more STEM education, and especially engineering-based education, to our district. Among a few other roles, I am the advisor for our high school robotics teams. Four out of the past five years, we’ve earned the right to represent New York state in the VEX Robotics World Championship.

In developing the framework, one of the things I liked was that our goal was not to hand a teacher or a school district a curriculum in a box and say, “Here are your modules. Follow this formula to STEM success.” It’s truly a framework. How each school district will adapt some of the ideas and practices in that framework is going to vary based on what that district already has in place and what it wants to put in place.

Micron’s new semiconductor fabrication facility is going to be 15 miles from our high school in central New York. So my district has a vested interest in students preparing for careers in advanced manufacturing and semiconductor manufacturing. But a district a couple of hundred miles away doesn’t have that exact same interest—they may have another technology company to partner with. Making the framework a very broad, general set of practices and ideas gives districts the ability to adapt it to what their local community needs and build on their existing courses and resources.

LEO: I agree. One of the reasons we kept the framework flexible is that teachers have different licenses and districts have different resources and needs. That’s why the framework is for advanced technology—not just advanced manufacturing and semiconductors. Each teacher, school, and district can pull different parts from the framework to build out their curricula.

In New York, most of our CTE classes are very linear: you do this, this, and this for a specific certification. When we started planning the framework, we had to ask, “What is it we’re really teaching students for?” A lot of our CTE classes are teaching for a specific skill, a specific job. This is broader preparation for lots of careers in advanced technology.

We didn’t want to pigeonhole young people, saying, “This is the job in advanced manufacturing that you need to have.” At first, the educators and administrators were talking about the highly technical clean room jobs. But Robert and other Micron staff emphasized that we shouldn’t be preparing for one specific job. We should prepare for the industry itself. Fortunately, most entry-level jobs in this industry lead to higher-paying jobs.

We developed the framework to make sure educators had flexibility and scalability at the school level. We also had the forethought to establish industry certifications that schools can offer if they choose. That does require specific licenses, along with classroom structures and CTE course sequences to earn those licenses.

Some districts may offer an elective to give students understanding of the industry; others may do a series of courses that open up multiple career pathways. Either way, we’re bringing them real industry skills that they can utilize, such as learning the Python programming language. Maybe it’s not specifically for Micron, maybe it’s not specifically for advanced manufacturing, but Python is the same program whether you’re doing advanced manufacturing or physics or construction and architecture. All the skill sets we placed in this framework are interchangeable for so many other industries.

DAVID: In the workgroup developing the framework, I think I’m relatively unique because I am going to be one of the people right on the frontlines who is helping implement it. Everything in that framework aligns with some of the coursework I’m already offering in terms of project-based and experiential learning. It’s about taking a step back as a teacher and being more of a facilitator instead of a deliverer of content.

In my robotics classes and club, for example, there is no textbook. The first thing students do is take apart last year’s robots. I don’t sit down and teach them, “This is how you attach things together. This is what a drive base or a lift mechanism looks like.” They learn by dissecting robots. When we go to competitions, kids see things that they want to use—but there’s no blueprint, so they have to design and replicate it themselves.

The framework emphasizes this type of learning by necessity through experience. It also emphasizes collaboration, which is the heart of our teamwork. In robotics competitions, students have to work with their team and with other teams. It really helps broaden students’ capacities, which I know our employers are looking for when these students go out into the workplace.

One of my students said, “I feel like I’m running a marathon, but the finish line keeps changing.” And I said, “Exactly. Welcome to engineering.” You’re always trying to improve. Somebody didn’t invent the cell phone and say, “That’s it. The cell phone is finished.” We continue to innovate. Those are sometimes hard lessons for students, but they’re good lessons.

I am really excited about how this framework fits with some of the things we’re already doing and also gives us a pathway to expand opportunities for kids. We have to start at pre-K and kindergarten to build an engineering mindset.

Building an engineering mindset is hard for teachers—myself included. It goes against some of our long-ingrained practices. Teachers need to become comfortable with the idea of their students having different ideas and producing different things. The process is just as important as the outcome. The framework helps build that kind of capacity into the coursework. It’s not about a sequence of predetermined classes; it’s about developing an engineering mindset in all your classes.

Drawing from the framework, there are a few specific courses I hope we can add for our high schoolers. We used to have an electronics course (which ended when the instructor left our district), and we need to bring it back as a foundation for advanced manufacturing and semiconductors. Then, since the new Micron facility will be so close by, we’ll need a hybrid class about semiconductor functioning and manufacturing. I’m excited about that because there’s some really amazing science involved, including chemistry and physics, plus technology. The last course I’d love to see developed is resource management and recovery. Where do the materials for semiconductor manufacturing come from? That includes mining, but also reusing materials that are already in products. How can we repurpose that material instead of having it wind up in a landfill? Those are important pieces of the manufacturing process.

A view of a Micron chip manufacturing plant in Virginia. AP Photo / Steve Helber

EDITORS: It’s interesting that Micron is more focused on education and workforce development for the industry than on filling jobs at Micron. How does this new initiative fit with Micron’s larger views on education?

ROBERT SIMMONS: There are no Micron employees—or employees in the semiconductor industry—without K–12 education. There’s a reason that Micron has a team of people working with K–12 educators and that most of the people on that team come from K–12. We need to partner with those who are closest to communities and closest to kids: the teachers. We see this as a continuation of our effort to ensure young people have a pipeline not just to a job but to a dream.

One of my colleagues said, “If the community isn’t healthy, it doesn’t matter what we do at Micron. So we need to make sure we’re doing our level best to contribute to the greater good.” And I believe through this partnership we’re contributing to the greater good. We’re also learning from educators. Colleagues have told me that they reimagined how they engage with young people when they’re volunteering and how they frame interview questions for new college graduates because of learning from educators.

We firmly believe that our partnership with the teachers union demonstrates that corporations, school systems, and unions can work together for the betterment of young folks. I started out as an AFT teacher in the Detroit Public Schools, and I’m a product of my hard-charging, hardcore United Auto Workers (UAW) grandfather. So I am here because of the union. My grandmother was able to support our family when my grandfather passed because the UAW ensured his union benefits were handed down to my grandmother. I’m always humbled and honored to stand in solidarity with organized labor.

With all this discussion of the Advanced Technology Framework, one thing I want to clarify is that you don’t need to be an engineer to work for Micron. We need people in finance, human resources, communications, and more. No one wants an engineer trying to run payroll.

LEO: That’s a good point. As a CTE person, I always look at the career clusters we have and the disciplines in which we teach. We can argue that Micron covers almost every career cluster: architecture and construction, maintenance and operation, art and advertising, technology and manufacturing, communications, business management administration, education and training, government and public affairs, hospitality, and legal. That’s what makes this industry so different than what we’re used to in the CTE space. When we’re building out a CTE class, normally it’s for one specific career cluster. This is a catchall. We’re making the state department of education and school districts think differently because we’re not talking about one particular class.

DAVID: I agree—and I think the framework, even though it’s focused on technology, helps develop broad skill sets. In my robotics classroom, our curriculum is built around different principles of engineering; there’s mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, computer engineering, and coding. But there are also other pieces of the puzzle that the kids learn they need to have, like collaboration.

Just as a company has to recruit people to do marketing and graphic design, our kids have to recruit teammates to do tasks that they don’t know how to do. I love Robert’s comment about an engineer doing payroll. I’ve seen engineers attempt to do payroll, and Robert is absolutely correct—it didn’t work out so great. You don’t want the engineer trying to make your logo either.

The kids discover that for themselves. One team had a student dedicated to doing the technical writing for their engineering notebook. That’s a full-time job for one kid. He wasn’t really strong in engineering or computer programming, but he was really good at documenting their work—and a vital member of the team.*Anchor

ROBERT: David’s robotics teams sound fantastic—and they remind me of a couple of my favorite programs for kids. Chip Camp and Chip Camp Jr. are programs we run for third- through eighth-graders that are all about semiconductor education. Young people learn some of the basics of what it takes to make a semiconductor and some basics of STEM. They usually apply their learning to the memory used in rockets and do a rocket launch.

Chip Camp can range from one to three days. It’s dependent on the community because we co-construct each camp with the school district and local educators. We don’t charge, and we offer hot meals. If needed, we provide transportation too. At the end, we also invite families to join in our celebration.

One important feature is that we work with local educators. Many educators have said that they take some of the lessons back to their classrooms, and then their colleagues may adapt those lessons too. So we believe that Chip Camp has a multiplier effect, not just for students but also for educators.

Two other programs we run are Girls Going Tech, which provides STEM role models for female, nonbinary, and gender-fluid middle school students, and Careers in a High-Tech World, which shows high school students a day in the life at advanced technology businesses. These programs are flexible, so they are different in different communities, just like Chip Camp. We also partner with Norfolk State University for STEM at the Beach.

DAVID: These sound like great ways to get students excited about STEM. Another way I’ve found is through the environment. Since we’re near the Great Lakes, I already have projects for second- and third-graders that deal with water conservation and keeping our water resources clean. With the new Micron facility, which will need a tremendous amount of water, I’m adding projects for middle and high school students on resource management. Micron will be pulling water out of Lake Ontario. That water has to be brought in, treated, used, and then retreated to be returned to the lake. Students are amazed to learn that we can’t put perfectly clean water back into the environment; it would disrupt the ecosystem. The water chemistry has to be adjusted to match the water chemistry of the lake.

Gabriel Robinson, captain of the Chittenango robotics team, and David Chizzonite with one of their award-winning robots. Photo courtesy of NYSUT.

EDITORS: One shared goal driving this partnership is bringing more students of color and more young women into advanced technology fields. How are you accomplishing that goal?

ROBERT: The folks who are underrepresented in STEM are a core part of our conversation at Micron. We’re actively trying to ensure that our workforce continues to bring in more folks from underrepresented communities. Personally, it’s important to me because I’m the son of a Spelman-educated mother. It’s deeply personal to make sure that young people of color have opportunities.

In central New York, we’re committed to working with communities where we know young folks don’t have access to STEM opportunities, like the South Side of Syracuse. We built the Youth STEM Funder Collaborative and brought in the nonprofit STEM From Dance, which encourages girls of color to learn STEM by designing and building technology to integrate into the dances they choreograph and perform.

When I first joined Micron, we launched a major K–12 STEM collaboration with a university outside Idaho (we already had many partnerships in Idaho where our company was founded). It was Chip Camp with Norfolk State University, a historically Black university. All of the counselors were Black women from the College of Engineering.

We also take pride in our employee resource groups and in making sure that they are strong, that they’re healthy, that they have resources, and that they have an executive sponsor who will listen and be a liaison to carry forward issues. The team that I lead is very diverse—they are from all walks of life, races, genders, ethnicities, sexual orientations, ages, locations. All the ways in which diversity shows up in our society, you see it in who’s on our STEM education team.

There’s still work to do in the tech sector, as is the case in all sectors, and we remain committed to the work. One reason this partnership is working so well is that the leadership of the AFT, NYSUT, and the UFT consistently discuss making sure that underrepresented students—in particular, students of color and girls—have access to opportunities in advanced manufacturing and semiconductors.

LEO: In New York City, which is highly diverse and highly segregated, we were intentional when we chose the schools to be involved in this partnership. We looked for diversity in the students and in the schools’ leadership. It was intentional that we brought Micron to the Brooklyn STEAM Center headed by a former CTE student, turned CTE apprentice, turned CTE principal who is of Jamaican descent in a school that’s 80 percent students of color.

As we grow these programs, if we are going to be the example for the nation, we have to make sure we call out the disparities in opportunities for underrepresented students. That’s the only way we’re going to help close the gaps in employment that happen in our low-income families, the gaps in education that happen in our inner cities. We have to be intentional to make true change, and we have to be confident enough to have uncomfortable conversations.

ROBERT: When I think about central New York, and communities of color in particular, I think of growing up in Detroit, where working in manufacturing provided a life that I doubt my family would’ve had if my grandfather weren’t at Ford Motor Company. What I do know is that his job killed him, because he worked in the foundry.

What settles my soul with Micron is that it’s clean manufacturing. You can come out of high school, become a technician, stay for 30 years (if you want), and retire from Micron with enough money to live on. Whereas my grandfather made enough money but died early because of the hazards of his job. To me, access to clean, safe manufacturing is an equity issue. Micron provides those opportunities. And there’s no better way to spread those opportunities than by working with the AFT, NYSUT, and the UFT.

LEO: I am proud to be a part of something that’s going to be life-changing for young people.

EDITORS: Thinking about educators and union leaders across the country, what recommendations would you offer if they want to develop this type of workforce development partnership?

LEO: I knew the connection between school and work at a really early age—and CTE has been my life. But as I progressed in my career, I’ve found that a lot of our young people haven’t made that connection. Across the country, there’s been too much emphasis on going to college—without an idea of what you want to do or what working in various fields is actually like—and too little emphasis on industries that need a skilled workforce and provide pathways for developing those skills.

This collaboration is different than what I’ve seen in CTE before because we had the New York State Education Department and Office of Strategic Workforce Development, Micron, and the AFT, the UFT, and NYSUT deeply involved. It is hard work to get everybody to agree with the trajectory of an initiative that has national implications. Making sure everybody at the table understands the long-term goal and is aligned is probably the most challenging part.

Throughout the spring and summer of 2023 when we started this conversation, money wasn’t a factor. We asked, “What’s best for students? What’s best for the workforce? What’s best for the future of semiconductor education in New York state?” Discussions of money came after we had a shared vision.

And if there’s one lesson that Robert and I learned, it’s that communication is critical. When we started developing our communication plan, we did frequent check-ins to maintain engagement with all the stakeholders. As you build something like this, you can’t predict the obstacles. And people don’t always hear things in the way they were intended. When something is miscommunicated or an email goes out with misinformation, it’s always best to just pick up the phone and have a conversation.

ROBERT: I agree. This reinforces the need for people to be in community and communicate in the process of building public-private partnerships.

DAVID: Communication is key at the local level too. When you have a superintendent, a board of education, and a union that work together, a collaborative relationship is going to produce much more meaningful, productive results.

The message I receive from folks like Melinda Person, NYSUT’s president, is “Work together, solve problems.” The framework is a great example of that. It’s the union, the state government, and Micron working together to make new career pathways for our students. Being collaborative doesn’t mean you’re going to agree on everything, but as long as you can maintain that collaborative relationship, you can disagree respectfully and still move forward.

The union is more effective when you develop strong relationships. You’ll see it when negotiating a new contract and handling the myriad issues that a union leader has to deal with every day. I recently spent an afternoon in our assistant superintendent’s office figuring out how to fund new materials for several programs, including 3-D printing and drone technology. If you don’t have a collaborative relationship with your administrators, a career pathways partnership can be the perfect springboard to start to work together. Everybody is excited to create new opportunities for our youth.

ROBERT: I’ll share a recommendation for industry leaders: listen to and learn from educators.

Other than my mother and grandmother, my teachers were the most influential people in my life as I was growing up, especially Deborah Peek Brown—my sixth-grade teacher for an integrated science class. Years later, we became colleagues. She was teaching in the Detroit Area Pre-College Engineering Program when I joined as a CTE teacher. Because of her, my entire career as a teacher and administrator has been centered around STEM education and workforce development.

Perhaps my most impactful experience as an educator was building a workforce development program largely for students who were under-credited and overage at a school where 50 percent of the students had been incarcerated. Through our CTE and workforce development programs, 89 percent were not incarcerated again; they lived productive lives.

I always say that the most hopeful people in the world are educators. The group of educators working on this project, their excitement, motivates me every day. I can pay forward what education has given to me by providing educators and young people an opportunity not just to work at Micron but to realize their dreams.

Anchor*To learn more about David’s approach to guiding his robotics teams, see “Learning by Necessity: How Robotics Develops an Engineering Mindset.” (return to article)

American Educator, Spring 2024