For those who are unaware (like I was), JA Biztown is a fully-interactive, simulated town contained within the four walls of a single facility. It is one of several programs offered by Junior Achievement of Central Indiana, an organization dedicated to educating students on work readiness, entrepreneurship, and financial literacy.
The JA Biztown experience actually begins long before students visit the facility. In the weeks leading up to the field day, students participate in 12 in-class lessons where they learn such real-world skills as bank account management, check writing, operating a free enterprise, price setting, etc. The program culminates with a day-long field trip to the JA Biztown facility, during which students participate in a 4 hour simulation exercise where they put their newly learned skills to the test. During this simulation, each student is a Biztown citizen who is assigned a job, some working for one of the many private businesses, others for the town government. Throughout the day, the citizens go to work at their assigned business, perform actual work functions, receive real pay checks, and spend their free time juggling activities such as lunch, errands, and shopping. It’s designed to be an introduction to life in the real world, firehose style.
Madelyn was psyched to find out she had been assigned to her top choice, Lilly Labs, where she would be conducting science experiments and assisting in selling their awesome “Slime” product. I was intrigued by the whole concept of Biztown, so when the school asked for parent volunteers to assist on field day, I jumped at the chance. Parents are not allowed to work at the same business as their kid(s), so they are assigned to a business randomly by the Biztown staff. I found out I would be helping out at Peyton Manning Children’s Hospital.
So as I arrived for orientation that morning, I was eager to learn exactly what was included within the town. In my opinion, if Biztown was in fact designed to simulate a typical Indiana town, then it would have to contain a strong manufacturing presence. This statement may catch many people off guard, considering Indiana’s reputation for agriculture. But as it turns out, the saying “There’s more than corn in Indiana!” rings very true.
Yes, you read it correctly. No other state depends more on manufacturing than Indiana. Nearly 17% of Indiana workers who aren’t part of the agricultural work force are employed in manufacturing. This is also the highest percentage of any state. And contrary to the perception that all manufacturing jobs are being offshored, Indiana led the nation in manufacturing job growth in 2014, with almost 14,000 manufacturing jobs added. This statistic is in sharp contrast to our neighbor (and my home state) Illinois, which had the nation’s steepest decline with almost 9,000 manufacturing jobs lost.
When I entered the facility, I quickly scanned the town layout. In Biztown, all of the businesses are arranged around the perimeter of a large town commons area. Each business has a store front facing out to the common area, and just like any town, there are streets and sidewalks and grassy areas (which I was told citizens would be fined for walking on if caught by the town law enforcement) placed strategically throughout the town.
There was a town hall, a bank, a restaurant, a utility company, a post office, a hospital, another bank (two banks within 100 feet? Wow this really was an accurate simulation), a multimedia/printing company, a security system provider, a retail sport apparel business, a radio station, a consulting company (only one?), a science lab, and wait for it, yes, a manufacturing company. And not just any manufacturing company, but 3DPARTS Manufacturing, a local company that specializes in 3D printing. A business that represented both manufacturing and cutting-edge technology? Count me in. I made a bee line for it, cutting right across the “grass”.
I was bummed out initially, because I discovered upon walking into 3DPARTS that a neighbor of mine (also an engineer) had been assigned to work there today. He had this big grin on his face as if he had just won the lottery. But I quickly ran through the 7 step process (denial…anger…eventual acceptance) and got back on task. I took a quick lay of the land. To start with, there were computers running 3D design software. This software would be used by the “3D CAD Designer” employees to design the parts that were to be produced. And to my pleasant surprise, these computers were connected to actual working 3D printers.
Students who were lucky enough to be assigned as “3D Print Engineers” would be operating the printers to produce parts throughout the day. Additional operational roles included a “Production Manager” who would assist in assembling finished parts and managing inventory, and a “Sales Manager” who would help set prices, set up displays, and interface with customers. When I thought about it for a minute, I realized what a great choice this business was as a representation of the manufacturing sector. Not only did it introduce students to the basic concepts of manufacturing, but it did so in a cool and fun way with which the students could relate. In one sitting a student could imagine, design, and produce a product. Hats off. Biztown had nailed it.
When the students (excuse me, citizens) first arrive at Biztown, they gather in the town commons area, where the extremely well-organized staff prepares them for the day’s events. After the orientation, the citizens each report to their business, and the chaos of simulated life ensues. Each business has a CEO, who is the face of the company and the main decision maker, and a CFO, who spends the entire day in front of the computer, inputting payments, cutting paychecks, printing invoices, and in general worrying about every cent coming into and going out of the company. Yeah, that’s about right. The rest of the employees at each business have job descriptions and responsibilities that are specific to that particular business.
Before you know it, the town is absolutely buzzing with activity. Utility workers are showing up at your business to read your meter, mailmen are delivering letters, newspaper reporters are requesting interviews with your CEO, law enforcement personnel are handing out tickets for violations, and companies are opening their doors for business. At a glance it seems like chaos, but when you observe it closely, you see that each citizen is performing their specific responsibilities with diligence, and the net result is progress for both the businesses and the town. It really is quite a sight to see.
All Biztown private businesses, no matter what their core offerings, participate in an afternoon marketplace session. During this session, the businesses each open up a store front and sell their company’s unique products (i.e. trinkets, think Dave and Buster’s type prizes) to customers. A portion of the day is spent figuring out how these products will be priced, and what marketing and advertising approach will be used. At each business, these retail activities are balanced with the normal operational activities. For instance, patients are seen and examined at Peyton Manning Children’s hospital, science experiments are conducted at Lilly Labs, and music is blasted out at Radio Disney.
The best way to grasp this experience is to view the day through the eyes of a typical citizen. It goes something like this:
Even though it was fast-paced and at times stressful, all of the kids had a great time, and they learned a ton of valuable lessons along the way. I was amazed at how many different money and time management scenarios each student was exposed to throughout the day. Again and again they were presented with difficult choices that 10 year olds typically don’t have to make. You could tell it was an exhausting day for them, and no matter how they felt coming into the day, I don’t think any of them were in a hurry to grow up by the end of the day.
And I think Biztown nailed it with the inclusion of 3DPARTS manufacturing. Today’s kids are technologically savvy, and they are used to getting their content on demand. They expect to imagine, design, and create a solution all in one sitting. 3D printing hits on all these marks. Kids love both the technology and the immediacy of 3D printing, and because of the Biztown experience, they just might start to see manufacturing as a cool, challenging, and viable career choice.
The fact is, manufacturing continues to become more and more automated, controlled by increasingly complex technological solutions. If manufacturing is going to continue to fuel Indiana’s economic engine, it will require highly skilled individuals who have been well-trained in the areas of science and technology. Therefore, my hope is that the Indiana school system continues to focus more and more on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) topics, and that through the educational process Indiana kids develop an understanding of how a career in manufacturing can be an exciting, challenging, and satisfying manifestation of their learned STEM skills. And they can have it all without even leaving the state.
Senior Integration Manager
Devoted husband, father of two active kids, coach, community volunteer, and hopeless DIYer. If I’m outside of work, chances are I will have either a tool or a piece of sports equipment in my hands.