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Transforming career and technical education (Part 2): What are the needs and challenges?

March 16, 2018

By Theo Pappas

Six aspects of CTE we need to understand to meet its challenges—including dropping the word “vocational”

Previously I wrote that the challenge of transforming a vocational skills center into a career incubator at Genesee Career Institute consisted of a major change in program and education methods that required new kinds of spaces. Central to our response was the development of a multi-purpose, cost-effective solution—the Innovation Zone, a hyper-flexible space that quickly transforms from a lecture hall to a small group collaboration space and in between.

Broadly speaking, flexibility and adaptability are crucial for today’s CTE (career and technical education) schools. But there’s more to consider and understand when updating or creating a CTE school. Today, I’m looking at the challenges, particularities, and needs for CTE and the approaches required to meet those needs.

Genesee Career Institute, Flint, Michigan.

Six aspects of CTE we need to understand:

1. Rebranding
Branding is part of creating a new image CTE across the board. It’s critical that we remove the old “vocational center” or “skills center” stigma from CTE. Many people (especially politicians) still refer to these wonderful new facilities as “vocational schools,” which doesn’t do them justice. We need to give these institutions names that reflect their purpose and importance in shaping technical careers. 

2. Accommodating commuters
Typically, high school students attending a CTE facility will spend half their day at their local high school, half at their CTE, returning to their district at the end of the day. A CTE may host two or three sessions a day with different groups of students, so there’s a lot of turnover. In older facilities, we often see students outside waiting for the bus or sitting down on the floor. Time, scheduling, and logistics of drop-off/pick-up must be considered in planning a CTE. For new schools or renovations, we’ve designed wireless/wired work areas with seating, tables, and shared monitors and technology so students can collaborate, work, or recharge while waiting for transport.

Robert R. Shaw Center for Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics, Katy, Texas.

3. Sharing the costs and benefits
Some CTE programs aren’t always dispersed to all high schools in an area but concentrated in a central CTE facility, shared by multiple districts. These CTE centers are “hubs” and may be funded at a regional level, such as with countywide and independent school districts. At the GCI, all its operational and capital improvement costs are managed by the Genesee Intermediate School District (GISD), which represents all 21 school districts in Genesee County, and therefore share costs and benefits of CTE. If such funding arrangements do not yet exist, creating a suitable CTE may require them. Yes, travel costs increase with the bus transportation needed to and from local schools to the central facility. But there are benefits having a centralized CTE center with regard to economies of scale, as CTE’s often have extensive equipment, technology, and operational costs.

Involving local and regional business partners not only helps with the planning and design of the CTE but informs the programs and their delivery.

The singular CTE center can better afford the building areas and expensive equipment when costs are effectively shared. This central CTE can better leverage the cost of staffing, personnel, equipment, and space and this results in better quality. This is especially true for CTE Pathways such as transportation, welding, manufacturing, aviation, and culinary arts—all of which require specialized and expensive equipment and accommodations.

Some districts also utilize a hybrid system for CTE in their districts—each high school offers a basic/introductory “principles of CTE” course (requiring only basic facilities and classrooms) and then offers the high level, comprehensive, and advanced programs at the main CTE.

As I noted when discussing the idea for the Saline County Career Technical Education Center at Saline County Economic Development Corporation (SCEDC) community engagement meetings in Benton, Arkansas, “This new Saline County CTE Center will be an addition to every high school in the county.”

Saline County CTE Center (SCCTEC), Benton, Arkansas.

4. A constantly changing and evolving pedagogy
As we mentioned, CTE is constantly evolving, so designing for today is not enough, we need to think about tomorrow, and about accommodating industries and jobs that don’t exist yet. As with the Innovation Zone, we must envision spaces where all kinds of educational delivery and collaboration can happen.

Jobs and the education required for them will constantly change. We’ve identified the current career pathways and clusters, comparing today’s jobs in those clusters and the jobs that will likely exist in those clusters in 2050. Today’s job in manufacturing maybe be in robotics, or 3D-printing, but the opportunities in the future may be in bio-medicine, nanotechnology or bio-mechanics—with whole new pathways yet to be established. Flexible/adaptable spaces are crucial to allow for changing pathways in technical education.

5. A “future-proof” campus
Anticipating change in CTE design is important. This extends to the campus level. It’s wise to create a site masterplan for the CTE that can allow the institution to expand its physical space to accommodate greater and changing needs in the future.

Genesee Career Institute, Flint, Michigan.

6. Connecting to the local business community
CTEs need to think what industries or roles they are preparing their students for in that region. What kind of programs are going to bear fruit in their area/region? Masonry? Forensics? Involving local and regional business partners not only helps with the planning and design of the CTE but informs the programs and their delivery. Demand for certain technical skills or abilities may change over time due to evolving industries and swings in the economy. Industry/business partners can help predict these trends, allowing the CTE leadership to adjust and adapt. In some cases, industry/business partners also provide equipment free of charge and their experienced or former staff may be able to serve as instructors.

As those six points highlight, getting a handle on the unique aspects of career and technical education is essential to understanding what’s at stake in the next generation of CTE centers and facilities.

  • Theo  Pappas

    Theo has planned and designed a multitude of successful and award-winning projects throughout his 30-year career, and he’s truly passionate regarding design for education.

    Contact Theo
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