At Delavan-Darien School District, tech ed getting a rebuild

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Catherine W. Idzerda
Sunday, April 6, 2014

DELAVAN—Teachers who have been in the classroom for any amount of time know that education trends come and go.

Decades ago, “shop classes” were considered a respectable way to pursue the skills you needed for a career.

Then, they slowly evolved into the second-best track of high school classes, a spot for students who didn't do as well in the standard classroom but were “good with their hands.” Finally, the classes fell out of favor almost entirely. With manufacturing moving out of the country, who needed those kinds skills?

Now, technical education is making a powerful comeback, driven by business demands and school systems that recognize that college isn't for everyone.

Nowhere is the change more evident than in the Delavan-Darien School District. More than a year ago, the school's insurance company told the district that it needed to shut down its metals shop. The room's set up was too haphazard to be safe, and the equipment wasn't up-to-date.

Working with local businesses and community members, the school's tech ed staff revamped both the metals and wood shop.  A new technical education committee made up of business members, Gateway Technical College representatives, former and current tech ed teachers and Cindy Yager, the district's new director of careers and occupations, was formed to keep things moving forward

The changes have gone far beyond fresh paint and new committees.

“We really looked at the entire program,” said Ross Foley, technical education teacher.

What did industry need?

It turns out that industry doesn't need the products of the old-school shop classes, those youngsters who could weld two pieces of metal together and understood the wisdom of “measure twice, cut once.”

First, the hard skills. Equipment changes all the time, and no school district can afford the latest of everything.

But Delavan-Darien is a bit closer thanks to a donation of MIG welders from Mode Industries, the metal fabrication and stamping company in Delavan. Mode also donated a milling machine, drill press, welding curtains and frame, work benches and recycled wood and metal for projects.

Then, the soft skills.

Being on time, punctuality, being prepared for class and work ethic.

“I have kids rate themselves and then rate each other,” Foley said.

All of the tech ed teachers are trying to get students to understand that they need to problem-solve and work with others.

Those aren't just catch phrases. Manufacturing has changed, said Barry Butters, director of education and training for Precision Plus, Elkhorn.

While many of the low-skill industrial jobs have gone overseas, manufacturers want workers who can “hear chatter in a machine” and know how to fix the component that is causing the problem.

His advice to students?

“I was talking to some students in an Introduction to Engineering Design class at Beloit Memorial, and I told them, 'Make sure you get into the metals lab.'”

Students in tech ed need to make sure they have a grasp of at least algebra I and II. Higher mathematics are crucial for problem solving, he said.

Another part of making the connection to industry is field trips to businesses throughout the community where students can see that their skills are needed.

“The partnerships between the community and the school district make the difference,” Foley said. “We want to give back as much as they've given to us.”

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