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Greene: Teaching Innovation

We Americans have always headed into our workshops, spare rooms and garages, and made stuff. From smart eighteenth century New England farm boys who brought their inventions south to Worcester, MA, where there was power to rent, to Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak tinkering on the first personal computer prototypes, this is what we do. But as school districts tighten their belts by cutting all but academic basics, we sacrifice practice in fabrication, the training ground for innovation. The result is that often high school graduates don’t know how to build, or sew, or even cook. So it’s refreshing to note that hands-on programs are still cherished at some schools.

At Leland and Gray Union Middle School there’s a program that’s a 21st century mash-up of shop and life skills. Called Hands On Minds Engaged - or HOME - the course has three components: hands-on projects, an expedition and community service.

For instance, the students built kayaks, but needed more storage to accommodate them. They went through the permitting and budget process to build a 20x30 foot pole barn, getting siding at a great rate from Wardsboro’s Bills Lumber and a donated roof from WW Building Supply. The final price tag was about $500.

Leland and Gray’s work-study program for grades 10-12 taught by Nika Oakes - known as the Co-op - was spared from budget cuts this year when local residents stepped in to save it. Students are placed in a work environment four days a week, and the classroom focus is on adult skills - everything from how to negotiate a lease and find healthcare to making a website. The program serves 50 students a year. It’s a Vermont mandate that any student can take the course but seniors get first dibs, then underclassmen.

Dan DeWalt teaches a course in hand woodworking that offers a fine woodworking apprenticeship. And Sue Jones’s Family and Consumer Science class goes into more depth on subjects like how to do your taxes, working up a budget and how to cook for yourself. All these hands-on programs are about arming kids for productive adulthood. They instill the fundamentals of problem solving, the building blocks of research and development.

We live in an era where simply teaching the three R’s is not enough. And as school budgets are slashed, resource innovation becomes more important every day.

Stephanie Greene is a free-lance writer now living with her husband and sons on the family farm in Windham County.
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