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Sage Automotive and Fisher Middle School Celebrate Successful Collaboration Program

July 13, 2015

Read any industry piece on workforce development and the apparent challenges of filling the skills gap and you’ll see experts stressing the importance of companies, especially in manufacturing and engineering, having hands-on involvement in their local education centers. The logic behind this strategy is a sound one, suggesting that if companies can reach tomorrow’s workforce at an early age, they can open their minds to the world of advanced manufacturing and inspire them to take an educational path that will lead them to a successful career. This strategy often focuses on the promotion of curriculums around science, arts, engineering, arts and math (STEAM) with the idea that manufactures will work hand-in-hand with local schools to create engaging programs that offer real-world insight.

During a panel discussion on workforce development at the 2015 S.C. Automotive Summit held in Greenville, Dr. Keith Miller, President of Greenville Technical College even stated, “Collaboration is the key to success. We have to have industry representatives, including manufacturers, in the classroom.”

In that same discussion, Sky Foster, Department Manager for Corporate Communications at BMW, added, “There is a new learner and we have to engage that new learner. There is no one size fits all. We have to learn to compete. If we don’t learn to compete, we die. We have to keep the practices of new innovation coming in.”

While just about everyone agrees with this concept, the reality is that very few are actually putting it into practice. Many manufacturers participate in career days or one-off showcases for students, but there is a lack of sustainable programs that are mutually beneficial (and enjoyable) for both sides.

Fortunately, that is not the case in Upstate South Carolina, and a great example of real-world collaboration is Sage Automotive Interiors’ involvement in the Mentor Program at Dr. Phinnize J. Fisher Middle School.

Based in Greenville and located near the Clemson University Center for Automotive Research (CU-ICAR), Dr. Phinnize J. Fisher Middle School provides students will unique STEAM-based learning experiences that put them in the right direction regarding career choices through partnerships with local businesses and agencies.

A Fresh Approach

This past school year, Fisher Middle School launched its mentor program to provide students with an opportunity to learn about a STEAM career that interests them. Sage Automotive Interiors, one of the world’s leading designers, engineers and manufacturers of automotive bodycloth, was one of 12 companies that took part in the inaugural program, joining Fluor, CU-ICAR, Michelin, Hubbell Lighting and others.


(Students at Fisher Middle School were tasked with managing a budget for a design project for the drivers of tomorrow)


“We did research to see what other programs were out there and what was working,” says Matthew Critell, Program Director at Fisher Middle School. “We found that companies were eager to participate in these programs, but didn’t know how to do it. The traditional setting would be for them to come in for a day or a couple of hours, do a small project and then move on. Obviously, that doesn’t create the lasting impression needed to inspire. We realized we needed something different so rather that duplicating other programs, we built one from the ground up.”

Fisher Middle School’s mentor program kicked off in the fall with a mentor fair—similar to the format of a career fair—during which representatives from Sage Automotive and other participating companies had to work to “recruit” students from Fisher’s sixth grade class to select them as the company they wanted to work with.

Once the mentor groups were determined, Fisher Middle worked with the partnering companies to develop projects that would reflect real-world scenarios for their industry. The mentoring company met with their group of students four times during the academic year to work on the project.

Critell and the team at Sage Automotive Interiors knew that for their project to be successful, they needed to get students to understand the many different roles that come into play in modern manufacturing. Together, they came up with a project scenario that various factors involved in automotive design.

The Project: Planning for Tomorrow’s Driver

The scenario presented to Fisher students was as follows:

The auto industry is constantly changing. To assist Sage Automotive in staying current with the needs of tomorrow’s drivers, it is looking to incorporate a younger generation into its workforce that can help them plan for the drivers of the future. There are many components to designing a car, and some of them are all done behind the scenes. Your team is expected to:

  • Look at the characteristics of today’s automobile interiors. What features do you like and dislike? What advancements can be made to make the interiors more durable?
  • Create a profile for your generation and imagine the look and design that your future self would like to see in an automobile. What type of fabric, colors, accents, and customizable features would you like to see in the first car you drive?
  • This job requires multiple teams to accomplish this project: Design Team, Research, Financial, and Management. Your job is to determine which role you want to play in this process.

Susan Mizelle, Business Manager at Sage Automotive Interiors, led the company’s mentor team in working with the students. They tasked the students with creating a profile and interior design to meet the needs of tomorrow’s drivers.

“We wanted to give students perspective on the various types of careers found in our industry so we broke the project down into different job functions, including research and design, finance and management,” says Mizelle. “Equally important was creating a project that forced these different groups to work together for one common goal.”


(As part of the design process, the team at Sage Automotive helped students create “Mood Boards” to help profile target customers of their automobiles)


Students worked closely with the team at Sage Automotive Interiors to stay within a budget and develop materials the company often uses in its own designs, including “mood boards” which offered insight into the lifestyle of the target customer for their project cars. Working together, they eventually narrowed down their choice of fabric for each car’s interior, which Sage Automotive Interior presented affixed to a car seat in the final session.

The Results

“The students were incredibly engaged throughout the entire process,” says Mizelle. “Going in, I’ll admit that we had some concerns about keeping the students interested, but I thought the participation was great. We had one student in our group whose father actually works in our manufacturing facility and he told us it was great to get a better understanding of what is dad does. Hearing that certainly reinforced the concept that we need to continue to look for new ways to get tomorrow’s workforce engaged now. It’s one thing to hear about a career choice, but nothing will ever compare to getting hands-on experience.”


“I think the reason this was such a success was because it was student-driven,” says Critell. “From the beginning, the students chose to work with Sage Automotive Interiors. They chose the project they wanted to work on; they chose the group they wanted to be in; they chose the fabric they wanted in the car. At the same time, companies like Sage Automotive Interiors were heavily invested in the program. The team at Sage was a big part in helping us take this far beyond our expectations.”

The success of the inaugural mentor program at Fisher Middle will carry on as the school and partners like Sage Automotive Interiors work to develop programs at the 7th and 8th grade levels.

For more information on Sage Automotive Interiors, visit http://www.sageautomotiveinteriors.com/. For more information on Dr. Phinnize J. Fisher Middle School and how to participate in the Mentor Program, visit http://www.greenville.k12.sc.us/fisher/ or email Matthew Critell at mcritell@greenville.k12.sc.us.  

Learn more about workforce development and educational centers in Upstate South Carolina at https://www.upstatescalliance.com/about-upstate/information-downloads#workforce-education.

TOPICS: Colleges & Universities