SOLIDWORKS Women in Engineering Series: Annette Norris

Annette Norris Has a Passion for Changing Lives for the Better by Developing Educational Programs Related to Manufacturing

What do the following all have in common: FIRST Robotics teams, apprenticeship programs, STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) curriculum development, summer engineering camps, after-school engineering workshops, engineering job fairs, manufacturing career field trips, Maker Spaces, Fab Labs, and technology incubators/accelerators?

Obviously, this is a list of engineering-related programs, activities, and educational initiatives that help young people realize the possibilities of careers in design, engineering, and manufacturing. However, this is also a list of the achievements adorning the 30-year-plus career of Annette Norris, who directs the Early Engagement Team at DASI Solutions, the SOLIDWORKS value-added reseller based in Pontiac, Mich.

A graduate of Spring Arbor University with a degree in Human Resources Management, Norris began mentoring young people and connecting them to manufacturing careers as soon as she was out of school. In her first job at the Job Training Institute at Jackson Community College (JCC), Norris worked with manufacturers to conduct assessments of current and potential employees, a role that exposed her to the manufacturing world.

“This is where I really learned a great deal about manufacturing,” Norris explains. “I had the opportunity to tour manufacturing facilities and really learn what skills were required for many jobs. I ended my time there with a successful youth program helping to mentor students who believed that they could not go to college. By mentoring them, they began to realize they indeed had the potential to do it.”

The program that Norris directed, the CARE (Concerned Adults Respond Early) Program, identified promising students from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds in the sixth grade who otherwise would have no real opportunity of going to college. Through summer camps, Norris got these students inspired and excited by their potential for attending college and working in manufacturing. Upon graduation from high school, program participants were awarded free tuition for two years to attend JCC.

“I learned early in my career that while education and manufacturing have the same goals in terms of training people to work, they are not typically on the same page,” Norris stresses. “They may be in the same book, but they’re not on the same page. Throughout my career, I’ve had one foot in manufacturing and one foot in education, and I’ve been trying to bring the two together.”

Norris continued to work on educational programs in her next two assignments: first, at the da Vinci Institute, a manufacturing charter school, and then at The Manufacturing Academy, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping people jump-start careers in manufacturing, where she served as Executive Director. In those roles, she served as a liaison between business/industry and local schools, developing field trips, coordinating speakers, and establishing after-school programs and summer workshops for middle school teachers and students.

Changing Lives Via Manufacturing 

Her experience working with manufacturers helped Norris assist with all aspects of the Jackson County Intermediate School District’s Manufacturing Technologies Laboratory, where she worked as an instructional assistant from 1999-2005. Norris managed the lab, assisted with curriculum development, and worked with teachers and students to organize field trips and speakers in six Career Pathways. It was through this educational experience that Norris realized that providing students with hands-on experience in design and manufacturing techniques was not only fun and rewarding but also changed lives for the better by stimulating student interest in manufacturing careers. So she initiated, organized, and managed the FIRST Lego League Competition in Jackson County.

“My efforts to get the Lego League competition up and running were all about providing hands-on experience to those students with a different learning style who learn more by doing,” Norris recalls. “That program does more than help kids learn how to make a robot that completes a challenge. It prompts them to think. I remember one boy who calculated how many seconds it would take for different lego wheel mechanisms to make a turn as part of building the robot. It wasn’t just about making the turn but thinking about how fast the robot should make the turn.”

As director of the Academy of Manufacturing Careers from 2005-2013, Norris designed and implemented apprenticeship and customized training programs to meet the needs of South Central Michigan Regional manufacturers, and developed a K-12 STEM curriculum for use at after-school workshops and summer camp programs.

“It becomes addictive when your efforts actually help people get jobs,” Norris notes. “What’s really nice is when I reconnect with a student as an adult and see them get married and have families. Partly due to my efforts, instead of flipping burgers or tossing pizzas they have productive careers in manufacturing. It’s extremely gratifying to work at a job through which I’m changing lives for the better everyday.”

Since joining DASI in 2013, Norris has worked in partnership with other local orginizations to secure a $3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor to develop and implement an Industrial Design Technician Apprenticeship Program for Michigan companies and has grown DASI’s Early Engagement Team from a single member to a team of five.  The team is currently working on expanding the STEM Education, University Research, Maker Spaces, Fab Labs, apprenticeship, and summer camp programs, which the team manages in Michigan and Indiana, into four additional states: Arizona, California, Kansas, and Missouri.

Accolades for an Early Engagement Pioneer 

Throughout her career, Norris has received awards recognizing her contributions to manufacturing and education. Recent recognitions include the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Apprenticeship Creative Innovators and Trailblazers Award in 2012 and the Manufacturing Institute’s Women in Manufacturing STEP Ahead Award in 2013. She also received a Special Tribute from the State of Michigan on April 4, 2018, “for her outstanding work at DASI Solutions.”

“Annette truly excels in her field, working selflessly and diligently to find talented individuals for DASI Solution’s manufacturing division. Her position, in which she has become an incredible asset, has allowed her to improve the lives of … those seeking employment in the manufacturing field. Further, Annette consistently dedicated her time and talents as a FIRST Robotics Committeeperson, where she inspires students to become leaders and innovators in the challenging STEM fields. The effect of Annette’s tireless service to the community on countless lives cannot be understated and we are truly grateful to have benefited from her talents in Lenawee County,” the tribute continues.

These accolades bring professional satisfaction for a job well done, but it’s the notes that former students drop her from time to time, thanking her for what she did, that Annette says really make her day.

I am a freelance writer who has written professionally about CAD/CAM/CAE since the early 1990s. I’ve written hundreds of case studies, numerous magazine features, and lots of white papers over the past 25 years, including many focused on SOLIDWORKS. In my spare time, I enjoy fishing, gardening, hiking, cross-country skiing, reading, and writing (fiction). Please feel free to contact me with ideas for case studies or blog posts, or just to say hello.