Out-of-the-box thinking benefits students and businesses
By Leslie Mertz
Technical education opportunities are helping to prepare Michigan students for the careers of the future. They’re also creating the skilled workforce that industries and businesses need now and will continue to demand in the years to come, says Karen McPhee, education advisor to Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder.
McPhee is well aware of the benefits of technical education programs. Before she joined the governor’s staff last April, she was superintendent of Michigan’s Ottawa Area Intermediate School District (ISD), which not only operates the Careerline Tech Center — one of the oldest such high school centers in the state — but has also initiated several new technical education programs for students of every age, even kindergartners.
A New Approach
“Ottawa’s Careerline Tech Center is a more traditional tech center,” McPhee says, explaining that some 1,300-1,400 high school students spend half of each school day at the Tech Center developing hands-on career and technical skills in one of about 25 program areas, gaining real-world work experience with area employers and earning college credit.
“We have very high support from our community, our businesses and our taxpayers, so we’ve been able to build, equip and reequip to provide a robust set of skill-training options at the Tech Center,” says McPhee.
Expanding on that success, the Ottawa Area ISD decided that such technical education offerings should be available to the students who weren’t participating at the Tech Center.
“We started thinking about how career exploration and access to work-embedded experiences were really the right of every child, and that we need to start long before high school in order to get kids engaged in the really interesting kinds of work in our business and industry community,” she says.
That line of thinking led to the launch of the futurePREP’d Academy in 2012. FuturePREP’d is an initiative that includes several career and technical education programs (see sidebar, page 18). Some are short-term, lasting just a couple of weeks in the summer, while others run the length of the semester or the entire school year, according to McPhee. Regardless of timeframe, all programs are designed to help students envision how their education might apply in the workplace.
“They’ll have a better understanding of that connection and also have a much better idea of what careers are available.”
The Ottawa Area ISD hardly corners the market for technical and career education programs, McPhee says.
“At the Kent ISD, for example, there’s a new, career-focused, project-based-learning technical high school right in their tech center.”
Project-based learning is an education model that runs counter to the typical classroom methodology of providing a foundation of understanding first and then giving students a project that uses that understanding.
“In project learning, it’s just the reverse: We give students the problem first and then they have to learn everything they need to solve that problem,” she says. Many schools are now adopting this approach to education, McPhee says. “It’s a natural way to learn.”
She also drew attention to Kalamazoo County’s Education for Employment programs, many of which are embedded at the workplace, and new programs under development in the Detroit area, such as the construction industry training options at the A. Philip Randolph Career and Technical Center on Detroit’s west side, that partner industries and businesses with schools to “cultivate talent and invest in the next generation of kids,” she says.
“These are all great examples of out-of-the-box thinking, and there are many different models around the state.”
Creating an educational pipeline
One of the reasons McPhee decided to take the position as education advisor to the governor was his call for K-12 and postsecondary institutions, business and industry communities and Michigan citizens to create an educational pipeline that prepares students for 21st century jobs.
“Gov. Snyder’s goal is for 60 percent of our workforce in Michigan to have a work credential, which might be a college degree but could also be a journeyman license or some other skill certificate or card, and that has really changed the dialogue in our schools, our businesses and our communities to talk about honoring all kinds of talented individuals and how we need every one of them to keep this economy moving.”
This focus involves a high level of cooperation between different sectors, she says.
“There was a time when we thought it was solely the school’s job to prepare students, but there are something like 90,000 different jobs out there, and schools can’t do that all alone. It has to be government, schools, industry and other employers looking at how they can collectively prepare students for careers,” says McPhee.
“The call to action is starting to work well in the state, and everybody is beginning to understand that they have skin in this game. We’re all beneficiaries and we all have an important role at the table.”
The Cherry on Top
Sundaes and Other Learning Paths
The Ottawa Area Intermediate School District (ISD) has started several innovative educational programs to give its students a leg up when it comes time to find a job. Two that have garnered considerable attention are the IChallengeU and Sundae School programs, both of which fall within the futurePREP’d initiative.
Developed for 11th and 12th graders, IChallengeU connects local businesses with teams of five to seven students from different schools. Each team spends two weeks at a local business or organization, such as Herman-Miller, Haworth or United Way. Drawing on a foundation of problem-solving skills learned at their schools, the students on each team work on solving a real-world problem for that business or organization and make recommendations at the end of the two-week period.
“The teams in IChallengeU are competing for scholarships and get college credit. At the end of those two weeks, these kids come up with recommendations that are mind-blowing,” says Karen McPhee, education advisor to Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and former Ottawa Area ISD superintendent. The students develop transferable skills and the businesses gain an appreciation for “how talented our kids are,” she says. “For a two-week program, it’s an incredible experience.”
Sundae School is geared toward students from kindergarten through fifth grade. In this program, teams of children compete against one another to invent the best new sundae concoction while working in a local ice cream shop.
“They have to do market research, they have to understand about ingredients and they have to test the market. We make connections with students, including what they’re learning about refrigeration and science, how things are grown, why consumer research is important, how to deal with the positive and negative feedback and how to make product adjustments,” McPhee says.
Students have a chance to see their sundaes offered on the menus of their scoop shops during the summer.
Besides Sundae School and IChallengeU, a variety of other programs, including semester- and year-long options, are available for Ottawa Area ISD students through futurePREP’d.
“It offers a different way of looking at career and technical education,” McPhee says. “The whole idea is to drive home relationships between what the students are learning in school and what they might do later on. This real-world approach makes sense to kids, and they’re really excited about it.
“I think it’s where more and more education is headed. It’s a very dynamic time in Michigan right now.”