By Natasha Ashenhurst.
Note: This story was originally published in the February 2017 VOICE Magazine, published by the Thurston County Chamber.
In Lacey, students are making ukuleles—from scratch. If the class stopped there, students may learn how to use woodworking tools and experience the satisfaction that comes from creating something beautiful, but crafting the instrument is only the beginning. Those middle school students also learn about the manufacturing process, creating sales channels and how to successfully market a finished product.
In Olympia, 32 Capital High School students are learning the skill of riveting on a fuselage located right in the classroom. This pre-employment training program, in partnership with Boeing, prepares the students for a career as a mechanic.
In Yelm, high school students are learning to install solar panels. They are designing and creating products using vinyl printing, 3d printing, and CNC machines.
In Tumwater, the exciting world of aerospace comes alive through a Flight and Space unit. Students delve into the history of flight and space, discover the science behind aeronautics, and explore traveling and living in space. Students then use their knowledge to design, build and test an airfoil.
How do schools prepare students for the world of work when the nature of work is in a constant state of change? Thurston County schools have a three-word answer: Career & technical education (CTE).
“Our primary focus is developing 21st-century skills in kids so they can join the workforce,” said Brian Hardcastle, Tumwater School District’s CTE director. “Maybe they’ll pursue a certification; maybe it will launch them into a two or four-year degree program. I call it one, two four. We are developing career pathways that will start in middle school and will provide kids with a vision and purpose for what they are doing,” he said.
Career and technical education (CTE) prepares students for a wide range of careers and further educational opportunities. These careers may require varying levels of education—including industry-recognized credentials, postsecondary certificates, and two- and four-year degrees and is offered in middle schools, high schools and area career and technical centers.
According to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, almost all high school students participate in CTE, and more than half take three or more credits.
CTE is at the forefront of preparing students to be “college- and career-ready” by equipping students with:
- Core academic skills and the ability to apply those skills to concrete situations in order to function in the workplace and in routine daily activities
- Employability skills (such as critical thinking and responsibility)
- Job-specific, technical skills related to a specific career pathway
Each of North Thurston School District’s five middle schools has applied technology courses, but each with a different theme. Last year they added underwater robotics at one school and next year another school will adopt the curriculum. At the middle school level they use a kit for the robotics course, but at the high school, they build the robot from scratch. Then, the oceanography class will use the robots that the school manufactured. The district also added sports medicine as a CTE class.
“Students interested in going into medicine learn how to tape ankles and work with student-athletes,” said Brad Hooper, North Thurston’s CTE director, “They get the opportunity to see if this type of work appeals to them. My motto is I am helping the kids find a career, not just a job. Trying a lot of different classes helps kids figure out their path.”
Teri Pablo, Yelm Community Schools’ CTE director agrees.
“We have over 50 CTE electives including green energy, landscaping, business, marketing, web design. The variety of things kids have to choose from allows them to know who they are and pick classes that will help them reach their goals. They have permission to try new things and find out what this work is really like,” she said.
To encourage students to learn whether a career might be right for them, each of the school districts is a partner with the Thurston County Chamber’s Business2Youth (B2Y) Connect program. In the Olympia School District, B2Y Connect uses software to connect students with local professionals who are doing the work that interests the student.
“This cloud-based software allows students to engage with Thurston County professionals to see how their career interests could play out in real life. Students can ask professionals in their field of interest questions about their work, learn about apprenticeship opportunities and see upcoming employer-hosted events right here in Thurston County,” said Christina Bower, the B2Y Connect program coordinator.
And while it may seem that putting such an emphasis on technical education would detract from traditional learning models and traditional career paths, research does not support this idea. Rather, according to a 2007 study titled Looking Inside the Black Box: The Value Added by Career and Technical Student Organizations to Students’ High School Experience, the more students participate in CTE activities, the higher their academic motivation, academic engagement, grades, career self-efficacy, college aspirations and employability skills.
Students at schools with highly integrated rigorous academic and CTE programs have significantly higher achievement in reading, mathematics, and science than do students at schools with less integrated programs. In fact, CTE classes offer math and science credits often fulfilling graduation requirements. For example, robotics classes offer math credits and sports medicine offers a biology credit.
Brian Hardcastle sees this in Tumwater. He said, “Hands-on learning helps students make sense of theoretical subjects, like algebra. CTE helps students construct their knowledge and our role is to guide them.” ●
Cover Photo: One of Capital High School’s Career and Technical Education (CTE) teachers, William Murray, stands in front of a Computer Numeric Control (CNC) machine. The workstation behind him allows the students to practice manufacturing at different angles, including overhead–an important training exercise for possible future work manufacturing Boeing airplanes. Photo by Capital High School teacher, Scott Le Duc.