As much of the plastics industry struggles with a workforce shortage, educational efforts and incentives are in high demand to prepare students in urban communities for careers and opportunities in the plastics and polymer industry.
This year, the Society of Plastics Engineers Foundation's PlastiVan program partnered with Keith Young, founder of Detroit-based science research lab Ecotek Science at Work!, to reach fourth- through 12th-grade students in Detroit public charter schools.
"I think this partnership with SPE is the first one that created measurable outcomes beyond our laboratory," Young said.
The plastics industry "never had a credible messenger in the city of Detroit or the urban community" to encourage applied learning "and have the passion to stick with it long term," he said.
Young said the combined efforts "crushed" expectations for the program in 2021, as the pandemic "created a vacuum" and evaporated most in-person extracurriculars in the metro Detroit area.
"There were less substitutes for content in STEM," he said. "There was a lot of pent-up demand."
Young said he expected to see 1,000 students go through the new virtual PlastiVideo program in 2021, but by June of this year, about 6,000 had completed the program.
"I think the plastics industry has underserved and undervalued urban communities," Young said. "The percentage of African Americans in the industry is under 10 percent. … There's also little to no representation of a diverse population in the outreach activities the plastics industry provides."
Urban communities, he added, are "one of the biggest consumers of the products."
"Every time you buy a bag of chips, a bottled water, 85 to 95 percent of the products we buy every day, there's polymers in there," he said.
"For the most part," he said, those communities, including children and adults, "have not had any real exposure to the application of chemistry.
"Our kids in the inner city take chemistry, biology and they might hope to do a little earth science. But chemistry is in everything, and the application of the subject … hasn't been crystallized in a way that a person in an urban community might understand," Young said.
The average number of essays, about 25, normally submitted to an annual contest Ecotek hosts, "when most kids weren't in school and they had no support," produced more than 120 essays last school year, the largest number in the history of the competition, he said. "We're planning for at least 500 for this coming school year."