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Hands On Education Makes Science and Math More Engaging

06 December 2012 Written by  Adele Flail
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Devon Hartley Devon Hartley

Many a frustrated student has stared down a page of cramped chemistry notes or a gnarly math set, and uttered the familiar cry, "When am I EVER going to use this?" Standard ways of teaching can make it difficult for kids to understand the real world applications of what they are learning.

Career Technical Education, or CTE, may be one way of getting students on track. These courses offer a feel for the day-to-day realities of professions they may enter. If the words "technical education" conjure visions of shop class and home economics, think again. Nearly half of the nine state-defined CTE areas of study are in scientific or technical fields, including agriculture, health science, information technology, and technology/engineering. The trend is on par with nation-wide projections showing that the fastest-growing occupations are in these fields.

"Our training has changed because the industry has changed," notes Mary Shumway, the State Director of CTE. "Kids need higher level math and science."

Over the last decade, the demand for CTE has been growing. Jordan School District has both the Canyon Technical Center and the Jordan Applied Technology Center. And Tooele opened its own CTE school, Blue Peak High School, three years ago, rather than continue bussing students to other centers.

Real-world learning

The Granite Technical Institute (GTI) in Salt Lake City may be unique for the veracity of the profession-focused role-playing it offers students. The school serves all nine high schools within the South Salt Lake Granite School District. Housed in a former hospital, some of the medical suites have been left intact to facilitate hands-on experience. One even boasts a full dentist's office where would-be dental assistants can put friends and family in the chair, making x-rays and whitening teeth under the tutelage of a practicing dentist.

In the best cases, CTE tightly aligns hands-on practice with academic rigor. Walking through GTI's classrooms, it is not unusual to see health profession students using mathematical methods learned in chemistry or algebra to calculate medication dosages for hypothetical patients.

GTI principal Devon Harley has noticed definite changes in students' investment in learning, "When there is some reason to do it, the kids figure out a way to do it." Referring to GTI's biomanufacturing class, he continues, "They do it because now their mind is saying 'I want to make this chapstick', not 'I'm doing math', and suddenly things fall into place."

This scenario rings true for Charles Emery, a senior at Skyline High School in Salt Lake City. Prior to attending GTI, he was less than enthusiastic about attending his traditional classes. A counselor matched Emery's interest in marine aquariums with a Marine Biology class. The class has proved to be a "definite motivating factor" on his path to graduation. "Anyone interested in a science class won't find a better one," he says. After high school he hopes to attend the University of Hawaii to continue exploring marine biology.

Giving Students a Leg Up

The Biomanufacturing/Biotech Product Design course, taught by Rick Grigsby, exemplifies how CTE classes prepare students for career readiness. He says the course is reverse-engineered based on the needs and requirements of local business. As the students explore medical devices, pharmaceuticals and biofuels, they also learn about federal regulations and marketing considerations.

Grisby says such measures ensure that students will impress future employers and college admissions committees alike. "It's about competition... when they walk into an interview, I want to make sure they're holding aces."

Inspired by Grigsby's class, Sabrina Abdalla, a senior at Granger High School in West Valley, is working with a friend to develop a device that could ameliorate nosebleeds. She cautions that the details of the device are confidential for now, but will be available by her own upcoming graduation, when she plans to have completed the preliminary work needed to start the patent process. "GTI pushes us to go places," she says.

By some measures, CTE appears to be an affective approach. According to Thalea Longhurst, State Coordinator of CTE, 95% of Utah's CTE students graduate from high school, well above the overall state and national average of about 75%. What's more, studies by the National Research Center for Career and Technical Education (NRCCTE), show that coordinating CTE and traditional learning leads to better performance over CTE-taking control groups, for example math assessments increased by 8-9%.

However, is it possible that the push for hands-on experience occurs at the expense of the higher level learning needed to be competitive in technical careers? That study has not been done and it remains to be determined whether CTE results in enhanced performance in college, or in the work force.

A 2009 report, the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), indicated that U.S. students are falling behind their peers across the globe. Whether CTE is making a difference may have to wait for an answer when the next study is published in December, 2013.

Photo Credit: Devon Hartley

photo credit: Adele Flail

photo credit: Adele Flail

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