Will the recent economic crunch be the nail in the coffin for shop classes, as U.S. schools sacrifice vocational programs in favor of a pure college-prep focus? New research suggests that industrial arts programs are necessary for our students. But are they too far gone to save? Maybe not …
Shop Class—Necessary but Faltering
A recent NY Times article dares to challenge the conventional wisdom that (at least in the U.S.) a college education is essential to the “American Dream.” To summarize, research suggests that for more and more young men and women entering the workforce, the skyrocketing cost of a bachelor degree (and therefore the debt carried into post-graduate life) is a crippling and unnecessary burden. Especially when, for most of the fastest growing job markets, no college degree is required. One of the main conclusions of the researchers is that schools need to bring back vocational training that not only opens up options for students, but teaches employer-demanded problem-solving, negotiation, communication, and conflict-resolution that is not always present in a college curriculum. From the article:
Peggy Williams, a counselor at a high school in suburban New York City said she would be more willing to counsel some students away from the precollege track if her school, Mount Vernon High School, had a better vocational education alternative. Over the last decade, she said, courses in culinary arts, nursing, dentistry and heating and ventilation system repair were eliminated. Perhaps 1 percent of this year’s graduates will complete a concentration in vocational courses, she said, compared with 40 percent a decade ago.
And Ms. Williams’ story is repeated across the country as schools slash programs under tremendous budget crunches. Shop class, with its liability insurance and expensive machinery and materials is one of the easiest for an administrator to justify axing. So when research shows that vocational training is necessary to our educational system, how do we reverse the trend and save our shop classes?
Two ideas presented themselves recently.
Celebrating Shop Class
Owing to our well-regarded opinions, our very serious demeanors, and the gravitas we bring to any occasion (and the fact that we agreed to it), colleague Craig Ruegsegger and I were once again invited to help judge the Iowa Industrial Technology Exposition. This year, the expo was bigger than ever with participants from schools across the state, dozens of exhibitors, scholarships at stake, and (to our delight) some 250-300 woodworking entries!
Once again it was very humbling to be asked to judge entries that would stretch my skills to their limits. And very gratifying to see the passion and dedication to the craft poured into each of the projects. There were too many great entries to show here, but one of our favorites was the custom wooden jukebox. It was designed to house a computer, touchscreen, speakers, and thousands of songs. Of course Craig and I were among the few present with the refined taste in music to appreciate the song selection playing as we passed (Ozzy’s No More Tears).
This year, the expo was held in the newly completed high school building of the Southeast Polk school district. Bucking the trend in education economics, SEP has spared no expense in their new state-of-the-art facilities. Housed in their brand new gym surrounded by wide sunlit hallways and classrooms, the expo took on a very celebratory tone. Dozens and dozens of students were on hand to serve as volunteers assisting all guests. Half the gym was set aside for career recruiters. There was an outdoor climbing wall. Technical colleges were on hand with driving simulators and pit crew races. The school was transformed into a celebration of vocational education. Rather than feeling like an educational “Plan B,” Industrial Arts Education was preeminent.
Since Craig and I live in the school district’s boundaries with young ones of our own, we asked one of the students to give us the grand tour. Having attended very small schools, we were both pretty stunned at the opportunities that our children would be presented with. We lingered in the industrial arts wing of the school, especially the wood- and metalworking classrooms. Rows of workbenches, project storage, safety equipment, heavy-duty woodworking machinery, banks of welding booths, metal mills and much more are pretty convincing evidence that shop class is not dead.
Economy-proofing Shop Class
I recently had the opportunity to talk to Craig Conrad, a shop teacher from Craig, Colorado. WOOD has featured his unique shop classes in the magazine a couple times before. In 1985, the school nearly lost its shop program to a lack of funding. Part-time teacher Craig Conrad stepped in, introducing a concept he called “Unstoppable Shops” which not only rescued the struggling program financially, but made it one of the most popular courses in the school.
Here’s how he does it:
At the first of the school year, students in Conrad’s class vote on a project to sell. Next they prototype it, learning about woodworking techniques in the process. Conrad teaches a condensed customer relations and salesmanship course before sending the kids out to take orders with sample prototypes in hand. Part of the money becomes a commission for the students (some of whom earned hundreds of dollars in the 5-day selling period)—real-life sales skills and huge incentive to take shop class. The rest of the money is spent on materials for the product and any left over becomes shop profit for new equipment.
Shortly before Christmas, student projects are set aside to focus on wooden toys. The day before Christmas break, the shop is transformed into Santa’s workshop, the students dress as elves, and the toys are given away to community children.
With a paycheck as one of the incentives, shop class quickly became one of the most popular classes in the school. Because it was funding itself, no administrator would cut it. Add in the community participation through sales and charity and Conrad’s shop class fulfilled on its promise of being unstoppable.
Conrad has retired from teaching kids; he now teaches teachers. After a recent Industrial Tech Education conference in Michigan, Conrad’s presentation generated enough interest among the shop teachers that he was convinced to team up with the local Woodcraft stores to give a couple of weekend seminars about creating Unstoppable Shops. If you’re a shop teacher (or know a shop teacher) in the Michigan area and would like to attend, the workshops will be held in the Sterling Heights Woodcraft store on July 29-30 and the Grand Rapids store on August 2-3. Ask for Liz Byers at 304-865-4160 or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Conrad says he’s willing to repeat the workshops in other locations, so even if you can’t make it to the Michigan workshops, contact Liz with your location. If there’s enough interest, you might see him in a Woodcraft workshop near you.
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