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Don't call it 'shop class': Tech ed faces future

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Frank Schultz
November 16, 2013

JANESVILLE—It's another day in the tech-ed hall at Craig High School.

Senior Ryan Black and Junior Lexi Hendrikson are arguing at the whiteboard as they puzzle through a problem: How slow can you throw a baseball and still have the ball cross the plate?

It's a thinking exercise involving math and physics and a little knowledge of baseball. The class is Introduction to Engineering and Design.

Black is serious and impassioned. Hendrikson has a grin on her face, clearly loving the give-and-take.

“This is my favorite class of the whole day,” Hendrikson said later.

These are faces of the new tech ed—what grandparents called “shop class,” and what parents knew as “industrial arts.”

High schools still teach kids how to use tools of the trades, but the tools have changed, and some of the focus has shifted in the past decade to the high-level thinking skills of engineering. And a lot more girls frequent Craig's tech-ed hallway these days.

“I have always enjoyed trying to solve problems and trying to create things,” Hendrikson said. But until this year, the only problems she got to solve were in math.

Hendrikson was lucky that her father noticed something about her. He got her to register for the course last year and sent her to an engineering camp last summer. She has loved it ever since.

“I didn't realize there was a class where you could do this. Otherwise, I'd have taken this a long time ago,” she said.

“It's fun getting a problem and figuring out the steps needed to solve it,” Black said.

Black loves math and science, but he also likes to build things. He has taken tech-ed courses about engines and building construction, but he didn't have time on his college-focused schedule to take one of the capstone courses, in which students from Craig and cross-town high school Parker build a house each year.

Black is excited to take what he's learned to college-level courses, which will give him the skills to create products.

Engineering skills were taught in the old days—things like drafting. But classes that teach actual engineering—part of an industry-backed curriculum called Project Lead the Way—are only about eight years old at Craig.

Just as in the old days, a student sometimes is referred to tech ed “because he likes to work with his hands,” said tech-ed teacher Vic Herbst.

“We just roll our eyes,” Herbst said, because of the implication that tech ed is a dumping ground for those who can't succeed elsewhere.

That view is changing, however.

“There is so much more to it now,” said tech ed teacher Andy Udell. “You need to know the math and science. They have to be able to read and write and add and subtract, too.”

On the other hand, it's still true that many students who are uncomfortable in more academic classes still find a home in Craig's tech ed hallway.

“We get kids who struggle in school, and we get those who are top 10 in their class,” Herbst said.

Tech ed's changes reflect the revolution in technologies seen in the workplace and the increasing demand for workers with engineering skills.

Udell, a 1998 graduate of Janesville Parker, lived through the change. He had computers in school but not computer-assisted design software that dominates today in engineering and manufacturing.

Computers have greatly expanded the varieties of projects students can do, Udell said. The variety is perhaps greatest in the classes that have the most girls in them: communications technology.

Herbst, in his 21st year of teaching tech ed, said girls are becoming increasingly interested in comm tech courses.

The communications classes get them into Craig's tech-ed hallway. Some move on to the more traditional tech skills.

“They start to realize it's not all the dirt and grease and grime they thought it was,” Herbst said.

Statewide, the numbers of girls in traditional shop classes and in engineering has grown in the past decade, although boys still dominate. Boys accounted for 75 percent of tech-ed 11th- and 12th-graders in Wisconsin public schools last year. But back in 2001, boys were more than 78 percent.

Craig has similar numbers. Herbst said about a quarter of tech ed students are girls.

Herbst's communication technology courses are computer driven. Students learn software that lets them process photos, design images, mix music and edit videos.

“You try to trip the trigger on something they might like to do when they leave here,” Herbst said.

Sophomore Sara Malmanger is taking her second comm tech class.

“It's got cool teachers, and you do cool things,” she said.

 Malmanger likes having a say in what kinds of projects she does.

“It's like, your own, and it's not similar to anybody else's. You can use your creativity a lot,” she said.

Students can output their work to machines that print posters, embroider on fabric and etch images on solid objects with a laser. Students have embroidered personal touches on backpacks and clothing.

Students etch digital designs into wallets and cell-phone covers.

They also produce an annual Craig spirit T-shirt that sells by the hundreds, and they design the cover of the Craig booster club's annual pamphlet. Students compete to produce the winning designs for the T-shirts and the pamphlet.

Students also learn old-school techniques. The classroom still has tables for mechanical drawing and a darkroom to process film.

But computers continue to gain ground.

“Printers” are now available that can create 3-D objects using plastic resins, and Herbst said the cost of 3-D printers has come down to the point where it might be feasible for the school to buy one.

Craig still has large, well–appointed shops where students work with power and hand tools on woods and metals.

“There's still some hammering and pounding because there's still a need for that,” Herbst said of the metals shop.

But even the metals shop has a computer-guided plasma cutter. Students feed an image into the computer, and the machine will cut the image into steel plate, like a hot knife through butter, only more precise.

“You're dealing with something as hot as the surface of the sun, basically,” said teacher Terry Schindler.

Janesville's R&D Laser Processing donates a lot of steel, Schindler said appreciatively.

In a recent project, students cut steel-plate garden ornaments in the shape of pumpkins. The pumpkins are sold to staff as fundraisers.

“If a student practices, takes their time, they could turn that into a moneymaking business. … They could support a family running a machine like this,” Schindler said.

Also family-supporting are the wages a welder can make. Schindler said instructors from Blackhawk Technical College are generous with their time, coming to class to show the TIG welding process.

Digital technology has made major inroads in the automotive shop, because modern cars operate and are diagnosed with increasing amounts of digital technology.

As in other tech classes, the teaching style in automotive class is to present a project or problem and let the students go to work.

“They get a little frustrated at times,” said teacher Mike Wagner. “I try to give them a little, but at the same time, they've got to figure things out on their own.”

In the wood shop, teachers are hoping to buy a computer-controlled router to replace a lot of handwork.

Tech ed projects often are tied to what educators used to call “the world of work.” Herbst's students worked on a handout for a real estate agent. Tech-ed clubs such as Skills USA and the Parker-Craig robotics club are highly connected to industry needs and get support from local industry.

“I would say our programs are connected more now with communities and business and industry than they ever have been,” said Brent Kindred, tech ed consultant for the state Department of Public Instruction.

 Creativity and problem-solving also are emphasized more. It's not just a “build something” education model, Kindred said.

“Our programs today versus decades ago are just deeper in what we're producing in students, and there are more career pathways available to them,” Kindred said.

There's still a stigma with what was once called “the trades,” but there's a genuine need for people with these skills. Educators are well aware of complaints from industry officials asking for more qualified workers.

Tech ed is not right for everyone, “but some can have a very prosperous life by starting as an apprentice. … And for some students, gosh darn it, that is just the way to go,” Kindred said.

That attitude is not found everywhere. The Wisconsin Technical College System did a survey of parents, teachers, counselors and principals and found many who believe a two-year technical degree or apprenticeship are good options, but when they talk to students, they often don't mention those possibilities, said Sara Baird, assistant director of career and technical education at the Department of Public Instruction.

“There's a societal reason for that, and we have to figure out, through strong communications, how to overcome those problems, to get more kids into technical careers that are well paying and sustaining,” Baird said.

One place to start might be parents who still remember “industrial arts.”

“The parents always think it's the same as when they went through it,” Craig's Udell said.

A separate problem is funding. Wisconsin schools do a great job preparing students for technical careers, but “they have done so even while facing repeated funding cuts and limits on spending, while costs continue to escalate,” Baird said in an email. “The relative investment in career and technical education has been declining for the past 20 years. It has declined by roughly 40 percent between 1991-2011, from 4.2 percent to 2.6 percent of total expenditures.”

Yet another issue is the many students who need remedial classes before they can get to their coursework in technical college or universities.

“We have long realized that our academic standards needed improvement and updating to better meet the demands of an increasingly inter-connected world,” Baird said.

That's why Wisconsin adopted the Common Core State Standards for English, the arts and mathematics, she said, adding: “Both the UW System and the Wisconsin Technical College System support the work we have done to implement the common core.”

Speaking of skills, remember that baseball-throwing problem? Black came up with an answer: 19.6 mph, but he wasn't done. Udell challenged his assumptions and reasoning while Black defended his work.

“Can't we just go outside and throw it?” asked sophomore Brevin Anderson.

“Mr. Herbst has a speed gun,” Udell said. “On Monday, we can go outside and see.”


This story was revised Nov. 18, 2013, to reflect the following correction:

HENDRIKSON’S NAME CORRECTED

The name of Craig High School junior Lexi Hendrikson was spelled incorrectly in an earlier version of this story.



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