The high-tech shop teacher of the future

Mark Garrison May 13, 2014
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The high-tech shop teacher of the future

Mark Garrison May 13, 2014
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Now that much of the grunt work in American manufacturing is done by machines, we need skilled, high-paid workers to run those machines. Specifically, workers with more math and engineering knowledge than in the past. And the manufacturing industry worries that schools aren’t teaching future workers what they’ll need to know.

Educators are working with industry to change that; in some cases by combining cutting-edge technology with an old-school educational concept. Some of this thinking is in action in upstate New York, on the tech-focused campus of Hudson Valley Community College. A group of high school students is huddled around teacher Darrel Ackroyd, who is showing them a 3-D printer. As the machine whirs and slices out patterns, one student wants to know if it could print out a person.

“In a plastic form, yes,” Ackroyd answers.

This cracks the students up and they immediately start joking about the possibilities of “3-D selfies.” But they take their tech seriously, and they pepper the teacher with thoughtful questions about speed, cost and potential uses of the technology.

Ackroyd is young, with a hipster beard and man bun. Despite his techie image, he’s also a kind of a throwback to a character these students’ grandparents would recognize: the high school shop teacher.

Schools are bringing back this tradition of showing students how to work with their hands, this time with a high-tech twist. Now, instead of a crappy birdhouse and a mouthful of sawdust, students get hands-on technology experience that could help them land well-paying jobs.

“We’re preparing our students for jobs that don’t exist yet,” says Laurel Logan-King, assistant superintendent at Ballston Spa Central School District.

Ballston Spa runs the program, but students in districts from around the region are eligible. They can get college credit studying here, which saves them (and their parents) money. But the big draw is the chance to get their hands on some of the latest technology, from nanotechnology to green energy.

The program, a partnership between high school, higher education and industry, is new, so educators often have to explain the benefits of working with technology that some find strange, maybe even scary.

“It’s really about creating that awareness, not only for the students, but also for the parents, so that they can have an understanding about what are these new opportunities that are going to be available for my children,” Logan-King explains.

Bringing students from around the region to a well-equipped college campus gives them the chance to have experiences like the realization student Morgan Pakatar had when she first suited up to enter a nanotech lab.

“I’m just, like, I feel cool, this is awesome, this is what I wanna do,” she remembers.

That’s what educators and tech companies hope for from programs like this: a new generation of workers excited about the jobs of the future, with marketable skills that only hands-on learning can provide.

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