At These Maine Tech Schools, Classrooms Are Structured Like Workplaces

May 5, 2017

On both the state and national level, there has been a call for increased emphasis on career and technical education, or CTE. The intent is to teach more students skills such as business management, manufacturing and computer science.

But educators say they’re still fighting a stigma that CTE is inferior to the standard, academic track. Some are trying to change that perception by making school look more like work.

Hope Thomas, a senior at Bangor’s United Technologies Center, never spends a school day in just one place. She often bounces from one side of the career and technical education center to the other.

Today, it starts off with carpentry, then welding.

“That’s where I spend most of my time. The smell of burning metal is just awesome,” she says with a laugh.

Then to the auto body center to check on an old car.

“They do a lot of work on cars and stuff,” she says. “It did not look hot. But now, it looks so much better.”

Traditionally, CTE schools like the United Technologies Center have kept these trades separate. Students come in, learn a skill and leave with a certification or training for the future.

But that’s not the case for Thomas. She came into the school to study engineering. But for much of her day, she will serve as a project manager, leading a team of more than a dozen other students who specialize in different disciplines.

Together, they’re restoring an Old Model T car that will soon be shown off inside the school’s lobby.

“I know nothing about what an auto body does. It’s kinda crazy. But I’ve had to learn how to talk to people. And to just really organize people,” Thomas says.

UTC Director Greg Miller says this year, for the first time, the school has partnered with local businesses on about seven of these projects. Students come together from all kinds of disciplines to focus on a goal, from building a car to crafting strategic plans for real organizations such as the Maine Multicultural Center.

The idea, Miller says, is to teach students the skills that they won’t learn when they’re solely focused on a single trade.

“If you look at the world today, there are so many things that are uncertain. It’s hard for anybody to say, ‘These specific skill sets will be the ones to carry you through your career.’ But the one we know will carry you through is collaboration,” he says.

Advocates of CTE say there are common perceptions that still linger about the value of this kind of education.

“For such a long time, parents heard the message that if your child doesn’t go to college, they’re doomed. So anything less than preparing them for Harvard or UMaine, anything other than that is lesser than that,” says James Stone, director of the National Research Center for Career and Technical Education.

Stone says CTE has changed its focus over the past two decades, partly as a response to this perception that college is the only way to a good career. Rather than teaching a single trade such as woodworking or plumbing, Stone says many CTE schools started listening to businesses, which said they need workers with skills like communication and teamwork.

“It’s becoming more broadly understood that this is the strategy we need to build into all CTE classrooms,” he says.

Stone says the new approach has emerged across the nation, and been adopted statewide in some places. In West Virginia, for example, Stone says every CTE classroom is now structured like a business.

Bo Zabierek, the former president of Maine’s Association for Career and Technical Education, says the program in Bangor is still largely on the forefront of this movement in Maine. But other centers are figuring out ways to teach these workplace skills.

At the Mid-Maine Technical Center in Waterville, mass media students are now placed in internships with Mid-Maine Motors, a local business, where Director Peter Hallen says they create videos and design websites.

“So I don’t think there were many mass media students thinking they’d be going to work for a car dealership, but that’s the way it happens,” he says.

There are still limits to this approach, however. Educators say they’re still trying to figure out how to bring these skills to students in trades such as culinary arts or plumbing, which don’t exactly lend themselves to collaboration.

But many of the students who have taken part so far say it has made a difference in the way they think about their possible careers. In Bangor, Thomas says she used to envision herself as just an engineer. But she says after being exposed to so many other trades through the Model T project, she now wants to lead a team that programs machines inside automotive factories.

Miller says he wants to add even more of these projects in the future, integrating with the business community, and in the process finally shed the old stigma about career and technical education.

Maine Public’s education reporting is supported by a grant from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.