Engineers Ourselves

Problem: The spare tire installation process on the assembly line at Subaru takes too long. How can we cut the time?

Solution: Put the high school students from the Engineering Design and Development class on the problem.

The students from McCutcheon High School watched the team at Subaru struggle with the tool they were using to bolt the spare tire to its housing in cars coming off the line. The wrench twisted, making the lock insecure and the process unreliable. The boys thought they had the answer: Redesign the tool.

They created a prototype of polymer plastic with metal pins that clamped the bolt securely and cut the time it was taking to install the spare tire in half. The problem was solved and the tool was fabricated and put into testing.

The two young men who solved the spare tire installation problem were at Subaru under the auspices of their Engineering Design and Development (EDD) course, the last in the STEM/Project Lead the Way (PLTW)  sequence offered at our high school. The class is a 2-hour block class offered to seniors who have completed the prerequisite PLTW courses. The students travel to one of two major manufacturing companies in Lafayette, Caterpillar and Subaru, two-three afternoons a week. There, they are assigned to a project engineer who guides them through the process of solving real problems that confront the company—on the assembly line or on the floor, even in quality control.

Nineteen students participated in the EDD program this year. Last week, singly or in pairs

Madison holds the prototype of a manifold caliper she created on the job at Caterpillar.
Madison holds the prototype of a manifold caliper she created on the job at Caterpillar.

or trios, they presented a summary of their activities—the problems they dealt with and the solutions they found—to an assembly of project engineers and executives from Caterpillar and Subaru; their teacher, Mr. Gary Werner; and other school personnel, including Central Office personnel and the Career and Technical Education coordinator.

“We liked seeing the real-world process,” the boys who redesigned the wrench said at the conclusion of their presentation. “We became engineers ourselves.”

It wasn’t the only problem these and other students worked on during their semester at Subaru. Nine students in all worked on In Process Control (IPC) issues with uniformity of paint color, reliability of welds, pacesetting for processes on the line, and safety monitoring. The daily routine for Logan  was to investigate a problem and assign it to an area that could resolve the issue. Loose or missing parts. A rear gate that wouldn’t close properly. A defective air flow sensor. “It was detective work,” he said, “and it gave me practice in auditing, investigation, and problem-solving—skills I’ll use all my life.”

John shows us the Engineering Notebook he was required to keep while at Caterpillar--a preview of what will be expected in college classes and in the field.
John shows us the Engineering Notebook he was required to keep while at Caterpillar–a preview of what will be expected in college classes and in the field.

Another ten students were assigned to project engineers at Caterpillar. This is Caterpillar’s 6th year working with students from McCutcheon.  This year’s crop worked on a variety of problems, including:

  • Creating a level to make sure that the turbo air tubes are all uniform in degree
  • Designing a suitable cover for the engine block so that stray items don’t drop through during assembly
  • Creating a lever that applies pressure evenly to the air manifold on the engine
  • Redesigning the layout of the line desk
  • Designing a fixture to hold a water block
  • Designing a dowel that will prevent people from hammering their fingers
  • Creating a shadow board to keep tools orderly and easily accessible
  • Redesigning the employees’ entrance
  • Redesigning the system for tagging items at lock out/tag out points

Notice the verbs I’ve used to list these projects: as every educator will recognize, they’re words used to designate upper level thinking skills.  Students applied ingenuity and expertise to real world problems, developing in the process solutions that are in active play at Caterpillar and Subaru today.

The skills they learned involve math, computer applications, and presentation. Critical thinking. Problem-solving. They learned to work in teams and to follow company protocols. To take direction, but to think independently to resolve issues.

“We learned a lot,” said James and CJ at the conclusion of their talk. “We learned responsibility. Other employees depended upon us. And creativity. We learned how important that is in problem-solving.”

This school year was the first time Subaru had teamed with the high school. The engineers liked the program, liked working with the students. “It’s a pipeline for us,” they said, and indeed it will be, judging by the newly announced college interns at Caterpillar. Two of those interns, from Purdue University, are graduates of McCutcheon’s Project Lead the Way program who did their EDD work at Caterpillar.

If you’ve followed my blog for long, you’ll recall the piece I wrote about the middle school STEM class, Anything but Random.  That was the exploratory STEM class. EDD is the culminating course. It’s a path worth following for students with an interest in engineering, for students who value hands-on learning, for creative and critical thinkers who want to solve real-world problems.

My colleague Gary Werner had the idea seven years ago to approach Caterpillar and arrange these min-internships for the EDD class.  A year of planning and curriculum writing followed. The partnership with Caterpillar that my colleague forged goes beyond the national EDD curriculum by putting kids in a real-world situation where they can “see it, feel it, touch it, breath it,” or as Mr. Werner loves to say, in a “hands-on, minds-on experience.”  The course has been a success all around, and compliments were extended by the students to their project engineers as well as to their teacher. In their presentation, seniors John, Michael, and Adrian thanked their Caterpillar mentors and commented that “School only goes so far.”  It’s been good, they said, “to see their projects in use.”

Indeed, thanks to this STEM program that has partnered successfully with local industry, nineteen  more students became engineers themselves this year.

 

Dining In at School

The busboy: “I can feel it in my back.”

The plater: “My feet hurt! Our teacher told us to wear comfortable shoes.”

The restaurant manager: “I’ve been under high stress all day…”

On-the-scene remarks from students in Mrs. Laura Cole’s Advanced Nutrition and Wellness class, spoken by students who had just finished serving full course meals to 70 people in the space of two hours in a restaurant they’d created from scratch. Another class would repeat the experience two days later—this group preparing meals for 65. Teachers, secretaries, principals, aides–all building staff and even district office personnel receive the menus in advance, make reservations, and on the days of the restaurant, enjoy a thirty-minute lunch period in a setting very different from the usual brown bag, microwave, and cafeteria tray ambience.

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McCutcheon teachers enjoy lunch prepared and served by students.

These student-operated restaurant days have been a tradition at McCutcheon High School for at least thirty years. The program has spread to Harrison High School, too, and the staff  at both high schools have the chance each semester to enjoy a relaxing lunch with colleagues and observe proud, though nervous, students in a completely different setting. For the students, it’s an opportunity to discover the many challenging aspects of operating a restaurant and to apply the culinary skills they’ve learned in class.

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Mrs. Jami Mosley and teachers at Harrison High School enjoy lunch served by students.

I’ve enjoyed these lunches for years and I’ve often wondered how my colleagues, Mrs. Laura Cole at McCutcheon and Mrs. Jami Mosley at Harrison High School, do it. How do they take students from objectives projected on the whiteboard to a full service restaurant?

To find out, I asked to be a fly on the wall during the instructional phase of Mrs. Cole’s class and then take pictures in the kitchen on the days the restaurant was in operation.

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Students folded construction paper to make these floral centerpieces.

When Mrs. Cole introduced the project,  I learned along with the students that they would find recipes online, propose a menu, cost out the meals, and then make final choices based on selections that could be prepared economically and in volume in a short amount of time, meals whose artful arrangement on the plate and utter deliciousness would be irresistible. Mrs. Cole explained that the students would select a theme for the restaurant and transform a classroom area in the FACS department into a welcoming space with soft lighting and themed wall and table decorations. They’d learn to work as a team and see the absolute necessity for each person to responsibly carry out his or her role: managers, servers, expediters, platers, bussers, and dishwashers.

My colleague showed the students sample menus that went back thirty years—I remembered some of those earlier lunches—and opened her closets to reveal centerpieces, vases, and decorative objects that could be used again if students were interested.  She talked about some of the problems and successes of the past, warning students of the necessity to plan ahead and think large-scale–larger than they’re used to anyway.

On the day of the restaurant, she continued, everyone would be involved in food preparation from 7:30 until 10:30. Then they’d diversify, each student carrying out the responsibilities of the role to which they’d been assigned. The students told me, when I interviewed them on the day the restaurant was open, that they had had some choice in this: They indicated their top three preferences and then Mrs. Cole took it from there. One of the students, the busboy, confided, “I’m the only one who wanted to do this job, so I got it.”

In the meantime, they watched an episode of Top Chef, viewed a video called Restaurant Nightmares, looked up restaurants online to get ideas, and did the math for a number of different menus.

I was there the day of the Great Dessert Cook-off.  Working in teams, the students chose a dessert, prepared it, plated a sample, and shared the remainder with the rest of the class. Afterwards, students evaluated the desserts on cost, appearance on the plate, taste, and ease of preparation in high volume  in a small amount of time. One of the best desserts, Crème Brulee, didn’t make the cut—not a practical offering on a large-scale basis. In the end, two of the many chocolate desserts won out: Peanut Butter Brownie Trifle and Chocolate Chip Cheese Ball with Graham Crackers.

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I was struck, on the day of the restaurant, by the efficiency and calm in the kitchen. The atmosphere was harmonious and focused. No hanging out, no hanging back, and certainly not any hanging on. Everyone was concentrated on making the teachers’ dining experience perfect in every way, but no one seemed frantic, even the manager, who did confess to being stressed. He told me that he has a job in a carry-out pizza establishment. “They don’t have a dining room,” he explained. “I’m used to the back-of-the-house, but this front-of-the-house part is stressful!”

The entrée was chicken quesadillas. At one station, a team of cooks prepared them on anIMG_7372 array of electric griddles. The cooks even asked to try an innovation they’d seen in a cooking show: melting cheese on the griddle so it formed a tasty crust on the outside of the tortilla. Delicious!

IMG_7385Another girl— a tiny girl who wants to be a professional chef, the one whose feet hurt—wielded the chef’s knife, cutting each quesadilla into perfect triangles.

The others at her station added Spanish rice and chips and salsa to the plate, and then the expediter delivered the plates to a side table where the servers picked them up. The manager hovered over them all, taking his job very seriously:

“A little more lettuce there!”

“Don’t forget the chips on that plate!”

“Watch the sour cream!”  Someone appeared with a wet paper towel to wipe a smear on the side of a plate.IMG_7370

Servers rushed into the kitchen: “We need five more desserts!” Instantly, the platers went to work, the expediter picked up the desserts and passed them to the servers, and the waitresses were out the door.

The second day—with her second section of Advanced Nutrition and Wellness—Mrs. Cole repeated the process. This time the menu was loaded potato soup, garden salad, a cheddar bay biscuit, and for dessert, that Peanut Butter Brownie Trifle.

For teachers, restaurant day has always been an event to look forward to, especially during the gloomy days of winter. It’s a chance to see the students shine and a chance for them to impress us. But there’s always a cost: The food is  so delicious we leave nothing on the plate…and that means extra walks in the days ahead to burn the calories away. That’s okay. These lunches are worth every bite.

At the end of her meal, one of the teachers asked her waitress: “Is the manager coming out?”  In the “back of the house,” I witnessed just a moment of panic when the message was relayed. The manager stepped into the dining room to discover not a disgruntled customer, but one who wanted, of course, to compliment the chefs and all the other restaurant workers, too.

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Mrs. Cole directs the student restaurant project at McCutcheon.

Mrs. Cole has been orchestrating this project-based learning experience for several years. The restaurant project means hours of grocery shopping for her and a great deal of planning, but it’s worth the extra time, she says. “While the restaurant project can be stressful, it is very rewarding.  Students work hard to plan their restaurant and menus.  Since students have so much freedom of creativity, they really take ownership of this project.  It is amazing how well they come together to be an effective team to carry out their vision.  While most are exhausted by the end of the day, they are also very proud.”

Indeed, the whole production is a recipe for success for her students: an impressive blend of content knowledge and culinary skill mixed together with math, literacy and problem-solving, flavored with creativity, and topped off with teamwork. Five stars!

Auto Shop: Way More than Grease Monkeys

“We do our homework in the garage.” That’s the tag line on my colleague’s business card.

He’s an Automotive Service Instructor, of course, and an ASE Master Technician.

The course Rob Jakes teaches—Automotive Service Technology–is the second in a two-year program that can culminate for high school seniors in acceptance into a vocational college or an immediate job in the local work force.  “I have students in the automotive repair departments of dealerships all over town,” Mr. Jakes told me, “and some students are already at Subaru-Isuzu.”  Many of his students attend Lincoln Tech, the University of Northwestern Ohio, and Ivy Tech, to name a few post-secondary schools near our community.

The day I visited his class, Mr. Jakes’ students were working on the wheel assembly on a faculty member’s car.  I watched and took pictures, tried to follow the language when I couldn’t get close enough to the action: ball joint, brake pad, piston, fuel injector, torque wrench, axle. The students handled the language and the machinery with ease.

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“They learn the language in the first year course,” my colleague explained. “No room for not knowing it here.” In that first year course, there’s so much vocabulary that the teacher uses Quizlet to help the students learn. They take an engine apart in much the same way they’d dissect a frog in biology to learn anatomy and physiology.  The Automotive Service Technician program is a sequenced learning program with an academic as well as mechanical focus.

IMG_7237In their second year, the students work on actual vehicles. One of our local industries, Subaru-Isuzu Automotive (SIA), donates “dead cars” to Mr. Jakes’ program. The students bring them back to life.  Once a week, the students work on faculty vehicles, and on Fridays, they can bring in their own cars and work on problems that can be resolved in a two-hour class period.

While 70% of the time students are engaged in hands-on work with vehicles, this class is nothing like the “auto shop” stereotype of twenty-five years ago when Mr. Jakes first began teaching.  In the first place, the students use an online textbook. “In the day,” Mr. Jakes told me, “there were no textbooks.  A student would once in a while look in a service manual to figure out what was wrong with a vehicle and how to fix it.”

Because cars today operate on computers, service technicians must have sharp reading skills and advanced technology skills to diagnose and repair the vehicles that come into a shop. Repairing cars is no longer a trial and error business, and a laptop computer is a standard part of a service technician’s toolbox.

When a car comes into the auto shop at McCutcheon High School with a problem, the first thing the students will do is check their own laptops for a TSB—Technical Service Bulletin—on the vehicle. If there’s no TSB, they might visit a technical chat room to learn whether the problem has occurred somewhere else in the country and how another technician has dealt with it.

For example, one day recently, the outside mirror on our principal’s car was loose. It is a new car, but when he was driving down the highway, he noticed the mirror vibrating. He brought the vehicle into the shop and one of the students, Cody, went right to an online chat to find a solution for the problem. He found the fix: Toggle the button inside the car three times to tighten the mirror. Think what might have happened in a shop if the service technician hadn’t had the initiative, and the critical thinking skills, to look online for a solution. The customer might have been told he needed a new mirror. $300.

Cody, who is enrolled in Mr. Jakes’ class for an optional 3rd year, plans to save money for college next year and then enroll in a technical-vocational program after that. Right now he works after school at a tire store where he uses a computer to diagnose problems with pressure and balance.

I asked him how long he’s known he wanted to be an automotive service technician. “Since middle school,” he said. “My initials spell CAR,” he added with a smile.

Before he finishes high school, Cody will have logged three years in the Automotive Service Technician program and received at least six hours of dual credit with our local community college. He will also have the opportunity, at the end of his senior year, to earn student certification in four areas: brakes; electrical; steering, suspension and alignment; and engines.  He’ll need at least two years of work in the industry to be eligible for just one of the eight advanced exams needed to be a Master.

IMG_1852Thanks to his mentor, Mr. Jakes, and this challenging Career and Technical Education  program, Cody is well positioned to pursue his goal of becoming an ASE Master Technician himself.

Project Runway

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  • Betsey Johnson
  • Calvin Klein
  • Ralph Lauren
  • Anna Sui

Just a few of the names that top the list of celebrity fashion designers.

Fashion is a consuming interest for many high school students, and these are names that brand-conscious teenagers recognize. They’re eager to know more about the industry itself, and for most, the first step is learning to sew.

But here’s a deplorable fact: In many parts of the country, sewing is no longer taught in school.

The rationale? People don’t sew any more. The implication being, who would want to?

Yet, every year at Harrison High School in Lafayette, Indiana, teacher Michelle Coors’ students pull off a runway show that has become an event in the community.  This year, the 28 students in her Fashion and Textile Careers classes took this complex project–the runway show–from an idea in their minds to a full-scale fashion production. On a mid-December evening, 137 different models paraded 159 designs on a 52-foot runway in front of parents, peers, and well-wishers. Stage lights illuminated the runway, and during the show, music and explanatory slides played in the background. This year, every seat in the house was taken and scores of attendees crowded into the little standing room that remained.

I was one of those people standing in the back. I had come to support my colleague, whose classroom I had visited many times and whose students I had photographed as they used a computer program to design wardrobes for “paper dolls”; as they cut cloth for the first time for pants, capes, and tote bags; and as they worked on their fashion merchandising research projects. Cutting fabric

Fortunately for our school district, most of our middle school teachers still have sewing machines and incorporate the fundamentals of construction into their curriculum (License to Sew). In addition, some students learn to sew through 4-H or learn at home from their parents. But about one-third of the students who enroll in Mrs. Coors’ classes do not have prior sewing experience, so she accommodates her instruction to reach students with a range of skills. Students who have never sewn before make tote bags and basic “fancy pants” in the Textiles and Fashion Foundation course first, and then they’re ready for the Fashion and Textile Careers class, the one that puts on the runway show.

HHS2014fashionshow_140Mrs. Coors offers her advanced class students the opportunity to create a magazine, a video, a movie—but they always choose the runway show. That means designing and constructing the fashions; finding the models; planning the lights, the music, and PowerPoint backdrop; constructing the runway; creating the programs; handling the publicity; arranging for a photographer; setting up for the program and taking everything down at the end.

Effective educators are skilled at organization, multi-tasking, differentiating, and sequencing instruction so that every student learns the skill he or she needs just as having that skill becomes a necessity. In Mrs. Coors’ classes, where the comfort level with needles and thread, bobbins and the presser foot varies from student to student, one-size-fits-all lessons will not work. Mrs. Coors plans her instruction so that students are always busy and on task, not all doing the same thing, but all engaged in a construction project appropriate to his or her skill level. Some of the students’ designs are simple; others are more complex. But the students are relaxed, self-confident, and engaged—after all, they are working on a project they have designed themselves, and they meet with success regularly.

And if they aren’t in the midst of a hands-on sewing project, the students are working on their Career Snapshot binder, a research project that more than meets the standards for Literacy in Technical Subjects, another layer of learning required in every subject area across the curriculum.

Students identify a specific fashion industry career that interests them and then explore that job and the  allied careers—the professionals whose job description and skills they’d need to know and rely upon to be successful at their own. I looked at some of these binders: pages of writing, including a reflective piece at the end.

IMG_1768 Croquis DrawingEach binder includes photographs and freehand drawings that illustrate the development of the students’ final design from inspiration to croquis drawing (those sketches of models with elongated—10 heads high—legs, the industry standard) to the sewn item on an actual model.

After the runway show ended, after the stage was disassembled, after the designers had collected their clothes from the models (Some let the models keep them!), the accolades poured in. And for 10 of the young designers, a contract: A local philanthropic organization commissioned them to recreate their “line” to be featured at another runway show, this one to benefit the Make-A-Wish Foundation.WishGala.Poster2015

So, don’t tell Michelle Coors or her students that “no one sews anymore.” Indeed they do, and this Project-Based Learning class more than illustrates the career opportunities that are open to  people with skills in garment design and construction.  In fact, it’s only February, but already many of these students have been accepted into prestigious art and design schools across the country.

Not to mention this: When the audience applauds and the photographer’s flash captures the models showing off the work of these young and aspiring designers, it’s a source of genuine pride for everyone involved.  For that night, Harrison High School students are the celebrity designers–and who knows what will happen in the afterglow?

 

 

Biomedical Innovations: Redesigning the ED

students in scrubsWe could see there’s a problem with too many visitors in the patients’ rooms sometimes.”

Heads nodded.

“We’ve devised a badge system that will eliminate that overcrowding problem.”

The administrators jotted down the details.

“You definitely need another door at the triage desk.”

More heads nodded.

“The nurses told us there’s a flow problem with the storage rooms. You have to go to two different ones. If you had a universal storage system—one central room with two entrances and supplies shelved identically on either end–then you’d improve efficiency.”

People took notes.

One afternoon this week, fifteen seniors from McCutcheon High School presented their plan for redesigning the Emergency Department at IU-Arnett hospital to an audience of seventeen IU-Arnett nurses, educators, technicians, and administrators. The students are members of Mrs. Abi Bymaster’s Biomedical Innovations class, the fourth and capstone course in Project Lead the Way’s Biomedical Science sequence. One purpose of Biomedical Innovations is to give students a hands-on, real world experience designing an efficient—and thus, effective—emergency room. Mrs. Bymaster challenged her students to take the assignment to the next level—to work not in the abstract, but with a real hospital with a real problem. The IU-Arnett facility is only a few years old, but already, Emergency Department demand has exceeded capacity. The hospital will soon be hiring a professional design firm to develop a blueprint, but in the meantime, these high schools students offered, in an engaging and highly polished presentation, a plan whose details clearly resonated with the experiences of their audience.

The students commanded the attention of the hospital personnel, including the Director of the Emergency Department and the Director of Facilities, for an hour. During their presentation, not one student stumbled and not one seemed even uncomfortable.

The students had been oriented to the hospital by a representative from the Human Relations Department, who had come to their class at the high school on two occasions. In advance of their actual visits to the ED, the students were required to have a flu shot, verify that they’d had a schedule of vaccinations, and sign liability and HIPAA papers. Over a period of three months, the students–recognizable in the eggplant-colored scrubs which they’d chosen to purchase—were allowed to float and watch events unfold. When they arrived, the students checked in with the charge nurse who would assign them to someone on the emergency department team—a nurse or a technician—whom they interviewed and shadowed. In the end, each student visited the Emergency Department four to five times, at different times throughout the day.

Back at the high school, the students reported their experiences to each other in class discussions, drew preliminary designs on the classroom whiteboards, and conducted online research into the operations of other hospitals in Indiana and distant cities. They worked in teams to identify innovations that could be made in four areas: structural design, storage, communication, and security.

“We think the nurses could communicate with each other and with others in the hospital if they had iPhones instead of the bulky calling devices they’re using now. Those devices are loud and intrusive.” As if on cue, a nurse’s portable phone rang—loudly. And more than once. Everyone laughed, but the point was accentuated.

The students assured hospital administrators that the iPhones could be equipped with “parental controls” so that their usage would be limited to internal communications, and they offered suggestions for a number of useful apps that would increase the functionality of the devices: Evernote—to replace the notes they had seen nurses making on random slips of paper; Epocrates—to identify medicines; Medical Spanish—a spoken medical dictionary that can ask patients questions in Spanish; and Telemed IQ—a text messaging system that is HIPAA-compliant.

Asked about those cell phones in the Q-A session at the end of the presentation, the students explained that iPhones are being used now in some big city hospitals and that the apps are secure and HIPAA-compliant. The students had done their homework and anticipated the question.

No presentation, it seems, goes without a technology hitch, and although the one these students experienced was crushing, they didn’t miss a beat or even make a face. One of the students, who had a background in civil engineering classes, had created a CAD drawing of the architectural redesign, but a software licensing glitch prevented her from showing it to the assembled hospital personnel. However, she also had produced a blueprint, and at the conclusion of the presentation, explained the changes her team had envisioned to a group crowded around a table. P1040754

It was the students’ professionalism throughout the entire presentation that set the stage for serious consideration of their ideas. They were dressed professionally, first of all, and the presentation itself reflected every speech and language skill their teachers had ever stressed and which my colleague had clearly set as a fundamental expectation: not a stammer nor a hesitation in speaking, not a single distracting movement, only carefully chosen words–precise and concise. Even when the phone interrupted her speech, the student talking about the iPhones maintained her poise, merely smiling at the comic relief the noisy ring provided and then deftly using the opportunity to underscore her message: iPhones would be less intrusive.

At the conclusion of the presentation, the Director of Facilities remarked to the students: “I’ve seen college kids who were not so good. I was impressed with your logic—how you’d thought things out.”

The Emergency Department Director had just returned from a week-long training. She commented that that she hadn’t come away from that with so many ideas as the high school students gave her. “And your demonstration was perfect!” By pretending to be nurses picking up supplies, the students on the Storage Team demonstrated in real minutes the time that would be saved if the hospital implemented their design.
“I was impressed with your presentation and your ideas—you seem to have enjoyed the process,” the Emergency Department Manager said. “You have blown me away.”

Biomedical Innovations is an example of the project-based learning approach that characterizes Project Lead the Way courses: Students have the opportunity to design solutions to real engineering problems—in this case, in the health field industry. Project-based learning integrates learning, calls for teamwork in solving problems, and prepares students for the world of work.

“My boss isn’t going to give me a worksheet and tell me to get it done,” said the young woman who had created the CAD drawing. “He or she will give me a project instead.”

The students learned so much, they told me:

  • The inter-relationship of technology, storage, and room arrangement
  •  How necessary it is that the environment facilitates communication
  •  The discovery that so many little things go into the big picture
  • How much time and effort the nurses give to the patients
  • All the work that goes into creating an efficient system

Most of the students in this class were already were thinking about a career in the medical field when they registered for the Biomedical Innovations course, but as one student said, “This program finalized that!”

At the end of the presentation, another student, a spokesperson for the group, thanked the hospital personnel for giving them so much help with this assignment. “Many of us want to go into medicine or a field related to medicine. Thank you for providing a positive experience for us.”

I began observing the students in the early stages of this project. Early on, I had asked their teacher what benefit there would be for the hospital: “Why would a hospital let a crew of teenagers shadow their nurses and interview everyone who works in the Emergency Department? That’s unheard of.”

“Well, they’ll get some free advice,” she said. Mrs. Bymaster went on to explain that she had worked closely with the hospital’s Education Outreach Department to design the assignment and establish its parameters.

Judging by all the head-nodding and note taking that went on throughout the hour, the audience heard more than just some gratuitous advice: They listened to a polished and thoughtful presentation that professional hospital designers are going to be hard-pressed to match.

More than that, the students gave current practitioners a glimpse of the future. Patients will be in good hands, whether these students ultimately become nurses, lab technicians, doctors, biomedical engineers, researchers, physician assistants or train for one of myriad other medical P1040748occupations. These future medical professionals understand the complexity of health care systems and know already that, along with compassionate care, efficient systems are critical in the mission to save lives.

Here’s the blueprint: IU Arnett 2d wc backup nov 12

CRAM: A Whole Lot More than Fixing Computers

IMG_6541Literacy across the curriculum. Why is it so important? What does it mean for instruction? And what does it look like in a course like Computer Repair And Maintenance (CRAM, for short) where, as far as most people know, students just make repairs to the laptops their peers carry around and use every day?

When my district made the decision in 2011 to issue laptops to every high school student in the district, it was clear there had to be a way to maintain those computers. Hence, the CRAM class was born. Today, the CRAM classes at our two high schools enroll about 35 students each semester.

Interested students sign up for a two-hour block: One hour every day is given over to instruction. Students learn to troubleshoot problems, make simple repairs, configure the devices, install programs, and a whole lot more. The students are staggered throughout the day for that second hour in CRAM. That’s when they man the helpdesk. When students bring their laptops for repair, the CRAM students get hands-on experience with technology and they also build the interpersonal skills that are so critical for customer satisfaction.

But it’s the whole lot more that makes this class an example of what literacy across the curriculum is all about. I had the opportunity to observe my colleague’s CRAM class at my high school a couple of weeks ago. The students were making their weekly presentations about information they glean from reading about hot topics in technology. My colleague supplies the students with a list of tech websites and the students select articles of interest to them. Their assignment is to distill the information and update their peers in a brief, but formal, presentation. All of the students speak from a podium and use the ENO board to highlight the main points in what is really a professional roundtable discussion. Often, on the day I observed, they stepped away from the podium, and they all used gestures and facial expressions that complemented their remarks. They were highly articulate and spoke from a position of comfort and authority. Naturally, they managed the technology with ease. A speech teacher would have been proud.

The topics—mostly mysteries to me—included 5G (the coming standard for wireless), the Linksys wrt199ac wireless router, even a history lesson from a young man named Eric: “Ten Things You Didn’t Know about the Ethernet.” He included a poem he’d found, a parody of Housman’s “I Think That I Shall Never See”:

I think that we shall never see

A graph more lovely than a tree,

A tree whose crucial property

Is loop-free connectivity.

Their peers asked questions, made connections to prior discussions, debated the pros and cons of a particular issue. The questions from the students were serious and largely technical. When a presenter concluded, my colleague opened the floor for discussion.

James, for example, updated the class on AT&T’s mobile router. She–their teacher–asked, “How would you use this router?” and a discussion of its pros and cons ensued. Responses were immediate; there was none of the delay or reluctance to speak that sometimes happens in a class. These students were comfortable with the content and eager to share their thoughts.

An explanation of the Heartbleed bug was another topic. “Will it really destroy the internet?” asked my colleague.

“No,” said Bailey. “In terms of physical destruction, no. But loss of trust is the consequence of malware and Heartbleed and other viruses.” That’s a thoughtful reply and indicates the upper level thinking skills that conversations in this class demand.

The discussion wasn’t deadpan, though. Though they were always respectful and professional, these kids have a sense of humor: Tongue-in-cheek, one boy asked Jonathan about a piece of hardware he was touting in his report, “What color does it come in?”

“Carbon fiber black,” was Jonathan’s quick reply.

During these presentations, other high school students approached the helpdesk with their malfunctioning laptops. Whenever that happened, a designated CRAM student quietly removed himself from the discussion to service the client. He spoke in low tones, and the student needing help followed suit. IMG_6554

A week later, I returned to the class to observe the students, seated in a circle, conducting a formal discussion of net neutrality, a hot topic from the week before that had struck everyone as deserving more attention than a tech report. Their teacher (using a problem/solution format that was formerly utilized in an event called Discussion in National Forensic League speech competition) directed the students to outline the problem and the aspects of it that are unalterable, present a variety of solutions, and then select the best one. The discussion lasted for a full class period—in fact, it went over to the next day.

I was amazed by the range of the students’ remarks, by how aware they are of the world beyond high school. I heard them say

  • ISPs could starve out a website.
  • ISPs are more likely to target big businesses.
  • Let’s be frank here: The Supreme Court is an older generation and the justices don’t understand the impact they’re making.
  • This is kind of like gas prices: People notice, but the increases are gradual and people get used to it.
  • ISPs can affect not just our economy, but the global economy.
  • We need to create a new FCC.

There was much talk about customer bases, profits, Fortune 500 companies, and VPN workarounds—a connection several made to the Arab Spring and the way that protesters got around their countries’ internet blocks.

Each person presented what he felt was the best solution; others responded. One boy, for example, said that we ought to direct the FCC to call internet providers “common carriers.”

“But remember,” said another boy, “We want to connect to other countries.”

Another solution: “We should Install a VPN on every computer—then the ISPs can’t block anyone.”

And the response to it: “Pirates will break it.”

Finally, Bailey pointed out that web neutrality is a multi-faceted problem requiring a multi-faceted solution—a recognition that bespeaks maturity and a thoughtful, in-depth consideration of the issue. How often do even adults view an issue as black and white when really, whatever the topic under consideration, it’s complex? IMG_6552

In the end, their “best” solution was indeed a multi-layered one: Forming a Technology Standards committee, which would be made up of highly qualified IT professionals, that would have the power to create regulations, much like the FCC. It would receive its power to implement those regulations from the federal government. The committee would submit its proposed regulations to a public vote to ensure checks and balances. The first two proposed regulations would be a) creating more local ISPs to eliminate current ISP monopolies and b) developing standard tiered Internet usage guidelines to ensure a continued free exchange of information while allowing the ISPs to earn a profit.

Well, I was impressed. Who wouldn’t be?

The students considered the issue from multiple perspectives and arrived at a solution that addresses multiple concerns. This entire project is a demonstration of the kind of learning the new standards encourage: informed debate, reasoned responses, credible evidence. IMG_6549

Students come to the CRAM class with different levels of knowledge and experience. They receive elective credit for the course, and at the end of the year, they can choose to take a test over the skills they have learned: the CompTIA A+ Certification exam (the computer industry standard). Passing that exam yields an industry standard certificate that can lead to employment. Students can retake the class another year if they choose—the only problem is fitting it into their already crowded schedules. Nevertheless, next year students will be able to take an advanced class—Network II—that will culminate in an opportunity to demonstrate advanced career skills on the Comp TIA Network + Certification exam. At one of the high schools, because of a partnership with Vincennes University, students can receive dual-credit for both years of study.

“If only this had been possible when I was in high school,” remarked my colleague. “Potentially, our students can graduate with 8 college credits, two industry standard certificates, and two years of work-related experience.” IMG_6547

My colleague at the other high school explained a different benefit of the CRAM class: Students gain hands-on experience with laptops. “Many individuals in the IT world do not know how to repair laptops,” he told me. “In fact, our students gain experience that can lead to expertise in small device repair—like cell phones—that other technicians lack.”

He went on to list what he sees as the other top benefits of the CRAM class: Obviously, the certificates; definitely, the interpersonal skills. “Our students learn to communicate,” he told me. “They have to support others, and that means they have to communicate effectively.” IMG_6556

The newly-released Indiana Academic Standards for Literacy in Science and Technical Subjects mandate the integration of reading, writing, and speaking skills in technical disciplines. The CRAM class is already equipping these aspiring IT and Computer Science experts not only with the technical skills and experience they need, but with the literacy skills that are so critical to success in post-high school coursework and in the workforce. CRAM is a whole lot more than computer repair: It’s real-world learning at its best.

Jumpstarting a Career

MilesHarrisonMiles, who impressed me as being someone a great deal older than seventeen, someone far beyond high school, stood confident and poised before three of his bosses, his teacher, and me. He was explaining the computer inventory system at the USDA Soil Erosion Lab (housed on the Purdue University campus) that it is his responsibility to maintain. Miles is a senior in high school, earning six credit hours this year through on-the-job training combined with career preparation classes at school. Here is what he does during the on-the-job component of his Interdisciplinary Cooperative Education (I.C.E.) program:

• Inventories the computers
• Installs and updates anti-virus software
• Installs the script that automatically updates the inventory of computer hardware
• Maintains an intranet website (which he developed) for use by all groups and individuals at the Soil Erosion lab
• Logs the usage of the fleet of vans the facility operates

He works from noon to about 4:00 PM every day as an I.T. intern, a job he found through the I.C.E. program at his high school. State guidelines mandate that I.C.E. students work a minimum of 15 hours a week; some work much more than that.

His friend works nearby at the USDA Livestock Behavioral Research Unit. Sometimes Nestor is handing piglets, and sometimes, seated in high back, cushioned, faux leather chair, he enters research data into a computer, analyzes that data, and confers with the senior researcher who is his supervisor about what the data reveals. Nestor is an I.C.E. student, too.

Recently I accompanied the I.C.E. teachers from the two high schools in my district on their rounds of local businesses and institutions where their students are employed. The students’ jobs could be in any one of sixteen career clusters that include finance, childcare, health systems, and manufacturing among others.

P1040427Besides the two facilities mentioned above, I visited a chiropractic office where Alyna works the front desk. She greets patients, answers the phone, prepares the day’s schedule, processes payments, and enters patient data into the computer system. At a Ford dealership, I watched Jordan and Andrew rotate tires on a truck. They also do oil changes and other routine procedures and even occasionally are assigned to do a brake job. At Dairy Queen, Ariana talked to me about her responsibilities as a crew leader, and at the end of our conversation, she served her teacher and me a chocolate dipped cone (my treat).

About ninety students in the two high schools combined take advantage of the I.C.E. program every year. They are kids who have a strong work ethic, have maintained good grades and a good attendance record at school, and have an interest in a specific career field—or think they do. Working half-days while they’re in high school gives these students a chance to explore a career field and find out if it’s really for them—before they’ve committed time and money to a post-graduate training program. They earn money while they work, and they interact with adults and develop the kinds of job skills—like responsibility, punctuality, and teamwork—that will serve them well no matter what they do in the future.

Some students already have a job when they enroll in I.C.E., and several told me they found it through networking. Others turn to the teacher, whose challenge is to match the students with their career interests. That was the case for Miles, the I.T. intern, and for Nestor, the student working at USDA. While talking to Nestor, his teacher discovered that he had a love for animals, so she contacted USDA, which had a position just right for his interests and talents.

Teachers supervise students employed at banks and daycares, in residence halls at Purdue, and for trucking companies. I.C.E. students work for veterinarians, in restaurants, for major manufacturers, in health care facilities, and for construction firms. In short, they’re everywhere.

I saw six of these kids on the job, and one commonality I observed is this: They all have uncommonly good communication skills. Each of these students was articulate, poised, and comfortable talking to me. The topic was one they knew well. They were all proud of their ability to do their job and eager to share their experience. They exhibited none of the awkwardness kids often display in speeches they give in English class. “I’m really shy,” Alyna told me, “but this job has taught me how to talk to people.” Indeed, she seemed quite at ease as she checked clients in and took payment from others in the clinic where she worked.

Being able to communicate with team members is even more important than being able to talk to someone like me about the program. Jordan stressed that when he talked about working with a crew in his bay. “You have to know when and how to ask for help. You don’t want to look stupid, but you’ve got to know when to ask for help so you don’t screw up.”

Miles explained that he has to communicate with people from a variety of cultures for whom English may or may not be the native language. English sometimes isn’t even the language of the software these scientists use, yet it is Miles’ job to facilitate the efficient use of the computers. Miles has to communicate effectively with all of the researchers and employees at his facility; his job is not just about installing software or fixing glitches.

Another commonality: These students are all developing the critical thinking skills that are essential to success in any endeavor. Whether it’s figuring out a software installation problem, working in tandem with a crew, or listening to a patient’s problem and scheduling appropriately, the students have to make judgment calls. That takes confidence, and it is confidence that these students are building through their on-the-job training.

Often the students take introductory courses early in their high school years and then, as seniors, pursue employment and the career exploration study that I.C.E. involves. Their experience often translates into a post-high school position. Jordan, for example, is out of high school now. He just happened to be on the job and a member of Andrew’s crew the day I visited the Ford dealership. Jordan explained that he had taken the automotive technology courses offered in high school, spent his senior year in the I.C.E. course, and now is employed half time while he attends advanced classes in Automotive Technology at our community college.

“I got hired at 17 because I was in the I.C.E. program,” he told me. “It made me more competitive than other people.”

P1040425The I.C.E. experience doesn’t always lead to a career in the same field. Andrew, for example, is planning to switch fields and become an electrician. But his employment in the automotive industry has clarified his career goals. “Not only that,” he said, talking to me while he worked on the truck’s tires, “the job has given me life skills.”

Ariana said the same thing. I asked her what the benefit of the I.C.E. program—in her case, working at Dairy Queen—has been. After all, she’s already enlisted in the Army and is on a trajectory to become a “multiple launch rocket systems specialist.” Dairy Queen seems some distance from that career pathway. She was quick to reply. “It’s taught me responsibility,” she said. “And discipline. Especially discipline.”

While their teacher grades their classroom work, which involves formal standards-based study of topics such as financial literacy, legal issues, and ethical behavior—all of which are tied to SCANS foundational skills—it is the employer who assesses the students on a quarterly basis and issues a performance grade. That grade is reality-based. After all, these jobs are for real, and the employers have customers and clients whose satisfaction is paramount.

I don’t think people in general know much about programs like I.C.E. High school students—at least those not involved in the I.C.E. program—typically think I.C.E. is just a way to get out of school in the afternoon. Admittedly, some of the students I talked to were not wild about the traditional high school setting—sitting in desks, listening to teachers, learning from books—and vastly prefer the “hands-on” experience they enjoy with I.C.E. But not one of the students I interviewed said that getting out of school early was a motivating factor in joining the program. Their responses were much more mature than that.

In Miles’ case, one benefit was the glimpse he’s had of the level of education needed in and beyond college for the various positions that exist in Information Technology. He’s developed a practical understanding of the distinction between training in Computer Information Technology and schooling in Computer Science. “Enrolling in I.C.E is one of the best decisions I’ve made,” he told me.

In fact, that’s what they all said.

These days we hear a lot about preparing our students to be “College and Career Ready.” The Common Core and other standards systems are heavy on the college part, but we don’t hear much about the career side of the equation. I.C.E. is an exception. These students are indeed ready to launch their careers—and that means both post-high school training (the college side) and post-high school employment (the career side).

I.C.E. isn’t for everyone, but neither is the traditional 4-year program for everyone. Students like Miles, Andrew, Alyna, and the others are ready for the responsibilities of employment in their chosen fields, and they’re jumpstarting their careers by enrolling in I.C.E.

I have to wonder if a lot of other kids are missing the boat by not taking advantage of this remarkable opportunity.

FFA: Not What You Might Think

It was a familiar scene for a former speech coach: Yellow school buses and white vans stacked up in the school parking lot and a bevy of adults clutching clipboards and coffee cups gathered in the Media Center awaiting final instructions from the teacher in charge. In the halls, students clustered in tight little groups or stood nervously to the side, rehearsing one last time the speech they would deliver as soon as the judges received their scoring packets and were released to classrooms. In those rooms, chairs had been pushed back, masking tape had been laid on the floor to delineate the “stage,” and the doors all had signs that were not there the day before: the event to take place in that room, the time of the event, the contestants.

Very familiar. Except that this was not a National Forensic League speech competition. It was the Future Farmers of America (FFA) District Contest yesterday at my high school.

I was assigned to judge “Freshman Prepared Public Speaking”—an event for the youngest FFA members, an initiation into the more difficult “Prepared Public Speaking” competition for older chapter members. These 9th graders—14-year-olds—each chose a topic in agriculture and prepared a 3-5 minute speech on the subject. They had to submit their papers, accompanied by a complete and correct bibliography, ahead of time. We judges had read the speeches before the contestants even entered the room—and, in fact, one of the scoring categories addressed the students’ written language: organization, coherence, logic, language, sentence structure, and whether the writer accomplished the purpose.

For the most part, they had memorized their speeches, although note cards are allowed. The topics were serious ones: The loss of farm land to developers and the implications of that for feeding our rapidly expanding global population; water conservation and the various ways we can effect that; the advantages and disadvantages of biofuels. No fluff here. Students were scored on the accuracy of their information, the evidence they provided and its suitability for the occasion. And that bibliography? Forty points!

The students had been coached in presentation skills. Every one of them strode confidently into the room, shook hands with each of the five judges, and made eye contact, smiling big. Someone who hadn’t learned this first rule of commanding the stage would have been a sore thumb, but every one of these kids was genuine in their friendliness. Their demeanor was refreshing, not staged, and they exuded wholesomeness.

I wanted to claim each of them as my own.

At the end, each student stood to answer questions from the judges. Naturally, they had to maintain their poise throughout the ordeal—and I imagine, to them, it was that. They had no idea what we might ask, but for the most part they had done their homework and could elaborate on their topic—or had the good sense to admit they didn’t know when the question was something that came (I’m sure they thought) from left field. One of the contestants, remarking on the importance of agriculture, observed that kids in general don’t know where their food comes from.

Another judge, an elementary school teacher, concurred with her. “Yes,” he said, “Ask elementary students where hamburger comes from and most will say, ‘The store.’”

P1040331That won’t happen when the student whom I can claim as my own is in charge of her classroom. In an exquisite turn-around, one of the judges I was with was once a student of mine, and now she helped me understand the procedures of my judging assignment. Three years ago, I coached Layne, who was in my American Lit class, in “Prepared Public Speaking” for this same FFA contest.

Layne not only won the district, but she went on to win the state competition and capture bronze at Nationals. Her speech was a heavily researched, intensely rehearsed argument defending the livestock industry against agencies and organizations who brand their practices inhumane. Her compelling explanations and well-chosen evidence convinced not just me, but audience after audience. Layne spoke not just in competition, but also, to rehearse her speech in advance of nationals, to many audiences of adults in business or in organizations connected to agriculture. She met people from all over the state—including a senator who offered to help her with resources—and the networking she did is still bearing fruit.

This past summer Layne was crowned Miss Tippecanoe County at the county fair—another big deal in our state and another competition that is not at all what it sounds like. Asked at that competition what her proudest accomplishment was, Layne replied that it was her experience with the Prepared Public Speaking event in FFA.

Layne is in college now, studying to be an elementary school teacher. Naturally, I wanted to know how FFA had prepared her for college. “Well,” Layne answered, “I’m the one people bring their papers to.”

The answer didn’t surprise me because the contest today was all about literacy skills—not just in the event I judged and the one I had coached Layne for, but in all the others, too: Agricultural Sales Demonstration, Essay, Exhibit, Extemporaneous Speaking, Job Interview, Natural Resources Demonstration—to name just a few.

She knows how to gather evidence for an argument, how to organize a presentation, how to write clearly and convincingly, and how to do that beastly Works Cited page—whether in MLA or APA format. “I did just fine on my first college paper,” she continued.” I already had those skills.”

Of course, the English Department gets credit here, too, but FFA gave Layne the opportunity to apply the skills she learned in English and speech in a real-world setting with authentic audiences. I wonder if everyone realizes the extent to which FFA supports the literacy skills that are taught in English and articulated in the College and Career Ready standards that every state (Common Core states and otherwise) must adhere to? We’re working the same ground, we English teachers and FFA.

And, I might add, FFA is an example of the kind of interdisciplinary learning that our students need. FFA members apply basic math skills all the time, in practical situations they deal with every day and in theoretical ones they’re handed in classes in ag business and ag econ. FFA topics are wedded to science (look no farther than the girl who spoke about water—she cited research at Purdue into drought-resistant plants and mentioned the aquifers in the West) and to history (She tied her speech to the water shortage during the Depression, too).  If we’re going to feed 9 billion people by the year 2050, technology will play a vital role as well. In fact, it is the interdisciplinary thinking and the committed work ethic of kids like those I saw yesterday at the FFA district contest that will make it happen.

The saying is clichéd now—a staple of promotional t-shirts and commemorative swag—but it was new to me yesterday: “FFA: Not just Cows, Plows, and Sows.”

Indeed.

Anything but Random

P1040221It was a system he’d devised for grouping students that led me into my colleague’s 8th grade Industrial Technology class:

He knows, given a choice, that students will sit with their friends. So on the first day of school, when his 8th graders come into the lab setting where they will sit four to a table, he lets them do that. What he further observes is that those self-selected groups tend to be homogeneous—most everyone is a member of some social group: the brains, the preps, the slackers, etc. Kids (and adults, it must be said) are usually friends with the people who are most like they are.

But for many of the projects in IT—Project-Lead-the-Way’s Gateway to Engineering course—a heterogeneously grouped team works better. So, to get the kids into such groups without their realizing they’ve been strategically placed, this savvy teacher puts a coffee cup on each table. In each cup are pieces of paper numbered 1,2,3,4. Everyone draws a number. Basically, all the ones become a group, all the twos, all the threes, etc. If the group needs to be smaller, it can be subdivided, but divided or not, what happens is that every group includes someone from each of the social groups—and the kids think they’ve been drawing numbers randomly. No hard feelings for a student who might not have been picked. No subtle labeling by the teacher when he or she divides the kids up.

Leave it to an IT teacher to work out the mechanics of social engineering.

I stayed on that day to watch these teams at work on their Rube Goldberg projects. You remember who Rube Goldberg was: an inventor, an engineer, and a Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist who drew elaborate machines to perform simple tasks. His name has become an adjective in the English language to designate any complex solution to a simple problem.

In sixth grade, these students had learned about the six simple machines:

  • incline plane
  • wedge
  • screw
  • lever (3 classes, depending upon where the fulcrum is located relative to the load)
  • wheel and axle
  • pulley

Now their task was to design a system that would use all six machines at least once to transfer energy from a given point on a 12” x 12” plywood base in a minimum of 3 seconds. A longer time is better—this is Rube Goldberg after all! Ultimately, all the complex machines would attach in a line. Students would have to devise the transitional steps between any two.

By the time I got there, toward the end of the semester, kids had already done the reading for this unit. They’d already learned the vocabulary (Try words like these and tell me they aren’t Tier 3 language: force, friction, gravity, mechanical advantage, open loop system, kinetic energy, potential energy, prototype, torque, velocity, work. Not to mention the names of the six simple machines themselves.)

The students had already been to the computers to find five common examples of each of the six simple machines: things like ramps to load or offload heavy equipment, door stops, circular slides on playgrounds, teeter-totters, wheelbarrows, shovels, rolling pins, and window shades. The research component of this project teaches kids to open their eyes to the world around them—and the amazing display of human invention that is all around us.

P1040229They’d already drawn their plans, and those were spread out on the tables as the kids gathered materials and assembled their machines. The supplies came from random materials my colleague had salvaged, scrounged, selected, and squirreled away just for this project: odd pieces of lumber, random pieces of metal, old bits of hardware, spools, caps, plastic parts of unknown origin, cardboard and whatnot. To an outside observer, the junk pile looked like trash—but it was treasure to these aspiring inventors.

They were keeping track of their “costs” as well. While no purchased parts are allowed for these projects, the students keep a running list of the costs they incur for the materials they consume, for the use of tools, even for the teacher’s “consulting time.” At the end, cost figures into the overall evaluation of their finished product.

I watched kids consult, make adjustments, compare the product to the plan, test their device. Painstakingly. Thoughtfully. Respectfully.

P1040230And when the bell rang, I looked around: All the tables were clear, the projects had been stowed until the next day, quiet had descended. Actually, the quiet was more the cessation of the power saws than the kids voices—because their voices had been  collaborative in tone; their words, purposeful.  Everyone had been contributing to the group effort; no one was a lone ranger.

There was nothing random about this class at all.

Leave it to an IT teacher to make complexity, simple: To teach kids upper level thinking skills, problem-solution strategies, skills of collaboration, math applications, and a whole lot of vocabulary, comprehension, and discipline-specific writing.

I was blown away.

License to Sew

Middle School FACS (Family and Consumer Sciences) isn’t the cooking and sewing of yesterday. In fact, many FACS teachers don’t teach sewing at all P1040022these days.  It’s not in the state standards as a stand-alone skill.  Fashion design, care of resources, reading instruction manuals: These are covered in the standards, but not teaching of sewing per se.  Fortunately, the middle schools in my district still have sewing machines, local standards still allow for teaching kids how to operate them, and the teachers understand that the justification for omitting sewing from the state standards—“No one sews anymore”—is not entirely true.  In my part of the world, 4-H is still a big deal and fabric stores still exist. In the larger world, the world beyond the borders of my county, the fashion industry is HUGE—and people who enter into that world need to know how garments are constructed if they’re going to design them.  Learning to sew is a career skill for some kids—no less important than learning to draw, play a musical instrument, or use basic computer programs like Excel and Word.

So it was a thrill yesterday to watch a sewing lesson—and one that was about as perfect as any lesson could be.

The kids came into the room, put their binders and paraphernalia on the desks in the classroom portion of the FACS room, and proceeded without delay or loud chatter to their assigned sewing tables.  Their teacher took attendance by simply asking the tables to report out the names of the missing kids.  Two kids were gone; she recorded their names later. Then she began the class with three very simple, short directives.  First, a correction to a privilege she’d accorded the students earlier in the year (one sentence, very clear, about music and iPods). Then, a review of the parts of the sewing machine (The students pointed appropriately as the teacher called out the names of the parts: presser foot, bobbin winder, feed dogs, and so forth).  Finally, the day’s agenda (Steps 8-11 on the License to Sew).

Have you ever tried to explain a complex task to an 8th grader? Try thirty at a time on a potentially dangerous, motorized machine.  Can’t you just see the apprehension in a novice teacher’s eyes? The constant hands in the air? The ever-rising level of talk as the students  wait for the teacher to run around the room to each one individually identifying parts, showing each one how to load the bobbin, confirming that the machine is correctly threaded? The horsing around that middle school students are so very capable of? None of that happened in this FACS room.

Here’s how this teacher did it: She issued those students a “License to Sew.”

P1040025If you look closely at that “license,”  you’ll see genius at work.  To start with, the students taught themselves the parts of the machine and how to thread it (including bobbin winding) by reading the instruction manual.  Anyone with a question first asked a fellow student at the same sewing table.  On the blackboard, the place of last resort, was the teacher’s HELP list.  The teacher answered the questions of the kids who had put their names on that list. What that meant was that she wasn’t frantically trying to answer thirty questions, all exactly the same, many about trivial matters, or running around reassuring the anxious ones and restraining the ones with the potential to cause harm.  She was helping kids who genuinely needed her expertise.  For all the rest, self-reliance and a little help from a friend did the trick. Incidently, that’s an important goal of the FACS standards: helping kids learn to act responsibly and productively.  Kids moved ahead at their own pace, and a quiz later on—taken individually, when the student was ready, in a one-on-one minute with the teacher—confirmed knowledge of the parts of the machine and the necessary application skills.  The next step was practice sewing on paper templates. I missed that scene, but I saw the templates, commonly used in introductory sewing lessons to give the students practice without wasting resources–in this case, precious fabric.

When I was in that FACS class yesterday, about a third of the way into the P1040019hour, when everyone had been issued their “license to sew,” the teacher conducted a quick demo.  The kids—orderly, quiet, attentive— clustered around her as she showed them the next steps in their first project, a pincushion.  She showed them how to pin two pieces of fabric together (“Right sides kissing!”), leave a hole, turn the item inside out and stuff it, starting with the corners. Then she released the students to the machines.

At one point, a student I was standing near asked me for help. Her bobbin thread was hopelessly tangled, but I didn’t know the machine, and besides, the rule was, ask a friend first.  So I suggested that and reiterated that if she P1040015didn’t understand, she should write her name on the HELP list. Another student overheard my response and stepped right up: “I can help you with that,” she said. Exit me.

Imagine some of the other things that could have been going on in this classroom:  At a table covered with fabric scraps (from which the students were to choose two pieces for the pincushion), no one was tussling over the fabric, pushing or shoving others, or throwing fabric wildly about. The scene was orderly—and  the teacher wasn’t standing nearby controlling this situation, either.  She was seated at another table where kids who finished could line up with their license and their project in hand. She P1040024measured their seams and checked off the steps on the license. All over the room, kids were working at their own pace, and everyone was engaged.

When the end of class grew near, the rest of this teacher’s clearly articulated and rehearsed expectations played out: Without reminders or fuss, the kids stowed their possessions, picked up the room and put all the equipment back where it belonged. They disposed of the fabric bits that had fallen to the floor and pushed their chairs in. Exit them.

A spectacular class: Specific skills were learned, character traits like self-reliance and independence were honored and nurtured, and the instruction the teacher provided and the procedures she had instituted allowed for students to progress at their own rate and take responsibility for their learning.  I’ve seen art teachers and music teachers and technology teachers do this same thing.  In any project-based learning scenario in any subject area, the procedures must be clear and the pacing has to be orchestrated to accommodate different kids progressing at different rates. The class must operate (forgive the pun) like a well-oiled machine.

This one did.