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The Future is the Past: High School Vocational Training


If you were anything like me, high school was about football, young love, and passing standardized tests. It was a turbulent time. It required a delicate balance of socialization, academics, and existential dread for the future. For me, I saw my path leading to a four-year liberal arts college where I could read Keats, Kant, and Langston Hughes — but then what? At the time, I did not see anything past those four years of higher education. By the time I graduated college, I felt unprepared for the workforce. So, another cycle of existential dread ensued.

While this appears to be a cycle for many graduates, whether it be high school or college graduates, educators in Boulder County are flipping the script by preparing students for advanced technical careers right off the bat. Whether it’s a robust manufacturing program that teaches students how to navigate Solidworks — an engineering design software — or an Apple Technician Certification program that opens doors for a $50,000+ salary, Boulder County schools are teaching their students cutting edge career and technical skills. These skills make them competitive applicants, ready to start their careers as soon as they step off the stage as the din of “Pomp and Circumstance” fades away.

The biggest move towards advancing Career and Technical Education (CTE) began with the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act, first authorized in 1984. It addressed the growing concern that high school graduates in the US were not prepared for skilled trades like manufacturing, carpentry, and other technical careers. The Perkins Act was reauthorized on July 26, 2018, ensuring CTE funding continued

The federal government’s continued support for CTE comes at an important time for the US economy. Economists such as Thomas Piketty (“Capital in the 21st Century) and University of California at Berkeley economist Gabriel Zucman report that income inequality is steadily growing in the US. To combat this, the chair of economics at University of Southern California Joshua Aizenman believes investing in CTE can decrease income inequality.

Chances are that better vocational education access and its quality in the U.S. would increase the income of the workers that are in manufacturing, and probably would reduce the overall income inequality in the US,” Aizenman told CNBC in 2017. Seems pretty straightforward, right?

The stage has been set for understanding how important CTE is in high schools. In order to improve the livelihood of every graduate — regardless of their socio-economic background — attention must be given to CTE. Fortunately, both Boulder Valley School District and St. Vrain Valley School District have understood the value of CTE, and are doing remarkable things to prepare their students for skilled trades and technical careers.

The common, entrenched view of CTE in high schools comes from the days of auto and woodshop. There may have been an instructor missing a finger or two. Those classes gave high school students a rudimentary understanding of certain key concepts: how to operate a lathe, table saw, or the basics of a piston engine. While these classes are still incredibly important, Boulder County schools are also focusing on the more high-tech aspects of CTE.

The Millenium Lab at Boulder High School is filled to the brim with beautiful, student-made scale models of homes, shopping cart robots, laser-cut portraits, and multi-thousand dollar tools. There’s a massive robot in the shape of a hand, which can crawl across the floor. There’s another robot made completely out of wood. It may just seem like a bunch of fun projects that high school kids work on, but there is so much more behind it all.

The Millenium lab is run by Dan Zahner, who teaches Technology and Industry and Tony Jiron, who teaches computer science. Both are seasoned veterans at Boulder High School with more than 14 years at the Boulder Valley School District. Zahner stresses the importance of teaching computer-aided design programs like Solidworks. Because so much of American manufacturing relies on computers, Zahner is teaching the students in his design technology classes how to use these programs.

In a traditional shop class, they’ll spend all semester building a lamp,” Zahner said. “It’s just not practical anymore.” Zahner wants to give all of his students the best chances in landing a job in manufacturing and design, regardless of whether they go to college or not.

I shouldn’t tell kids this so much, but, you don’t even have to go to college,” Zahner said discussing how prepared graduates from his classes for manufacturing and engineering jobs. “You learn (Solidworks) and you can get a good-paying job, starting at about $60,000 — starting way higher than your average teacher without even going to college.” He laughs off that last part and smiles.

Zahner is proud of the work that his students do. He has hundreds of student creations on display in the Millenium Lab. He also trusts them immensely. Once his students have learned how to use the laser cutter — a machine that costs roughly $15,000 — he gives them unrestricted access to it. His students can use all of the equipment in the Millenium Lab, except for the table saw. For Zahner, he wants his students to learn, create, and grow.

One way Zahner gives his students real-life, hand-on experiences in manufacturing and design is through industry partnerships.

I don’t do contracts with businesses,” Zahner said about being approached by businesses in Boulder. “If someone comes to me with a project, we just do it because we think its cool.”

One such project involved prototyping a design to eradicate the brown tree snakes that have ravaged Guam’s ecosystem. Zahner and his students built a complex, airborne glider device to deliver poisoned mice into the tropical canopy, where the brown tree snakes live. The prototype was used successfully in Guam, giving students a real-world exercise in design and prototyping.

While Zahner lets his students partner with companies in Boulder pro bono, the Innovation Center of St. Vrain Valley Schools takes a slightly different approach. With over 30 industry partners, the Innovation Center is a game changer for hand-on learning and preparing students for the workforce. While some 90% of their graduates go on to attend 2 or 4-year colleges, according to Associate Director of the Innovation Center, Patricia Quinones, they are given the skills to immediately enter the workforce upon graduation.

75% of the jobs in the future, and now, are in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) careers,” Quinones said. “Really we have prioritized what kind of opportunities we provide for kids. The unique thing about the innovation center is that we employ students.” Whether the students are designing drones, producing professional training videos, or building robots to help students with Autism, the Innovation Center provides kids with authentic, hands-on experiences in professional environments.

When thinking about future jobs for her students, Quinones understands the high demand for STEM jobs. “We felt like computer programming was an area of high need and would really allow students to go into that profession with an associate degree and make $65,000 right off the bat,” Quinones said. Students who complete programs at the Innovation Center are offered a free, 2-year associate degree program thanks to a partnership with Front Range Community College. This partnership — called Pathways in Technical Early College High School (P-TECH) — along with a corporate partnership from IBM, allows students in the St. Vrain Valley School District to complete an associate degree in computer information systems at no cost to the student. This sets up students for increased opportunities upon graduating from the P-TECH program, including being placed at the top of the list for potential careers at IBM. This collaborative approach to technical education gives students hands-on, real-world experience in technical trades.

One extremely unique opportunity that the Innovation Center offers is an Apple certification program. “We’re really the only ones in this country to have it,” Quinones said about the Apple certification program at the Innovation Center. The program involves training students to be repair technicians for Apple, granted they pass the rigorous exam. Of the students who have taken the Apple-administered exam, only 45% have passed. However, the ones that do pass are immediately offered jobs by Apple depending on where they want to pursue their education.

Offering opportunities in technology to careers for students just graduating high school is a big achievement, but some members of the community are concerned about the heavy investment in technology education and the change it is bringing to Boulder County schools. Quinones believes we need to push past these concerns and embrace innovation.

A major challenge has been to allow the community to understand that innovation and change is nothing to be afraid of, but to embrace it, especially in the educational environment. Using technology and being able to understand ‘what’s behind the curtain’ is really important. People think ‘oh, it wasn’t like that when I went to school.’”

The entrenched view of the grizzled shop teacher, or the cosmetology teacher in CTE still stands in the minds of many parents, students, and educators. Certainly, these teachers exist, and they provide a valuable service to those interested in traditional skilled trades. But Quinones and Zahner see a brighter, higher paying future for their high school graduates.

Brian Thomas, Centaurus High School teacher and winner of a 2018 Impact Award, sees an equally bright future for all of his students. Thomas teaches courses on design and manufacturing, civil and architectural engineering, and aerospace engineering. With over 480 students in his program, Thomas is giving his students the leg up on career and technical career opportunities.

Of all the classes Thomas teaches, the design and manufacturing class exposes students to complex machinery like CNC mills and routers, and career specific software codes like G and M-code. Using all of the available technology at Thomas’s lab at Centaurus, students can manufacture their own skateboard designs, bonsai trees, and everything in between.

For students who really like just creating and getting their hands dirty, Thomas opens up pathways to technical careers without a traditional engineering or four-year STEM degree.

There are engineering technician programs, some are two years, some are four, but they’re not quite as math-intensive and design-heavy. They’re a lot more hands-on. They’re for kids who just want to get busy making something.”

And there are plenty of these students. For a student who takes the aerospace engineering class, maybe they don’t become an aerospace engineer; instead, they have the proper exposure to the field to enter a trade school as an airplane mechanic. For a student in the design and manufacturing class who struggles with math or computer software, maybe they don’t go to a university to study robotics; instead, they go to community college to further study manufacturing. But even for kids who do pursue an associate’s degree or certification program in manufacturing, Thomas notes that many of them have the necessary, fundamental tools they need to succeed on a manufacturing line.

Kids that are in the manufacturing class, when they see the milling machines at factories we tour, they’re able to read what’s on the screen,” Thomas said. “They know what’s going on, because they do it on a smaller scale…they’re looking at this and they’re saying, ‘yeah, I could do this right now.’”

Thomas understands how important this early exposure to manufacturing is. “The manufacturing workforce is aging, and there are more and more kids who are getting interested in (manufacturing) that want to start something right away,” Thomas said. “What I think manufacturing is headed towards is automation, and a kid who is really motivated and really, really bright is already thinking that. We talk about that non stop in my classes, and the implications of that.”

Zahner, Quinones, and Thomas all understand how important it is to expose students to technology and its applications in technical and skilled trades. Whether these students go on to become the next generation of software engineers or start working on the manufacturing line right after graduation, the career and technical education programs in Boulder county schools acknowledge how quickly technology is changing many traditional skilled trades. These schools are bolstering the chances of student success after high school graduation, giving them certifications, degrees, and job offers as their stepping into the next phase of their lives.

The cycles of existential dread over career possibilities and paths certainly still exist, but the educators in Boulder County schools are making sure that if students want to enter the workforce right away, they have the skills, training, and experience to enter some high-level, high paying careers — all without having to pay the crippling cost of student loans.

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