My Grandfather Built Things

My Grandfather built things. The steel fabrication company he founded built water-filtration tanks for the construction of Disneyland and the emerging industrial economy of China in the 1950s. His generation survived the poverty of the Great Depression, won a global war, and participated in the most profound economic and technological transformation in human history. Their postwar technological achievements, from building the interstate highway system and the California Water Project to the Apollo missions, represent a creative and productive output that often seem undervalued today.

Even when I was a kid, most students had the opportunity to experience the thrill of actually building things in school. Birdhouses and cutting boards were crafted in wood-shops. Students learned to weld and fix engines and grow things. Throughout the early 2000’s, an increasingly academic focus significantly reduced or even eliminated such opportunities in many schools.

As we move into the Twenties, however, there seems to be a resurgence of support for career education.  I see this through the new funding streaming into schools to support career technical education (CTE) courses. I have seen a rising awareness that schools need to prepare students for both higher education and careers.  As Director of Alternative Education for Ukiah Unified School District, I help oversee the CTE programs.  On any given day at Ukiah High School, you can find hundreds of students applying themselves to real, hands-on work in 30 different career technical education (CTE) courses. Students grow their agricultural skills in courses like Sustainable Agricultural Practices or Veterinary Practices. They explore computer science, networking, and cybersecurity. Students practice welding and automotive repair or build parts out of metal using state-of-the-art machining tools. Other students dive into Health Sciences through our Medical Terminology and Extreme Responders classes. Students hone their creative skills in Fashion Design or capture their imagination in photography courses. Still, others prepare for careers with Children through Child Development courses and Family and Consumer Sciences.

Students in these courses have the opportunity to move beyond single-subject, content-heavy instruction, and apply learning from multiple disciplines in connection to career paths they find engaging and meaningful. These programs provide students with opportunities to gain the competencies required in both today’s workplace and higher education—such as critical thinking, collaboration, problem-solving, innovation, teamwork, and communication—and to learn about different careers by experiencing work and workplaces.

In the near future, employers may not be so concerned with a diploma. They’ll look more at portfolios and examples of how students contributed to solving real-world problems. They’ll want to know how well students worked in a team and how well they can communicate with others and work toward innovative solutions. Likewise, top universities no longer have room to admit students who have not demonstrated the ability to apply their learning in real-world situations, think critically, and design innovative solutions, no matter how impressive their test scores and GPAs.

It’s exciting to see our students push beyond the limits of traditional schooling to develop the skills that top universities are looking for in their applicants and that the students will need for success in the future workplace.

It’s encouraging to see schools all over the country provide a rich and varied offering of both academics and career technical options for students. Coupling rigorous intellectual and academic exploration with real-world, hands-on learning gives this generation the tools they will need to succeed and build their future. When I see the amazing things our students are creating and building again today, I think my Grandfather would approve.

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