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Tech Centers Hammer Home Math And Science

Over the past few weeks, both President Obama and Governor Shumlin have touted the merits of education designed to meet the needs of 21st-century employers. So this seems a good time to visit one of Vermont’s many career and technical education programs.

At the Center for Technology in Essex, students apply math and science concepts using just about every tool you can think of.

One cloudy morning has not begun well for one student in the Building Technology, but he’s making the best of it. Brian Japp, the science instructor, watches him and a few friends dismantle a broken car part in a vise on a table.

“Zach, the gentleman in the flannel shirt, had his drive shaft break this morning, actually the universal went, so he’s not allowed to park it here, but he got special permission, so these guys are just putting a new universal on it, then he’s going to park where he should park,” Japp explains.

“A learning moment, a real life one,” he adds.

Real life learning moments are what Vermont’s Career Technology Centers — called CTEs — are supposed to be all about. There are 17 regional programs throughout the state. Most are affiliated with high schools, some partner with local employers, and all are federally funded. Here in Essex, where construction jobs are rebounding, the building technology program runs the gamut from carpentry to site layout to plumbing. High school juniors and seniors — all male, in this class — are learning old-fashioned timber framing, as well as more modern heating techniques.

Teacher Shawn Rouleau walks up to a pile of wood chips outside the woodworking shop.

“Okay, so what looks like a simple pile of wood chips is actually a living machine, and what’s going on here is the microorganisms in this pile are breaking down the wood chips and they are creating heat in that process, so inside this mound we have 300 yards of plastic tubing that we can circulate water through,” Rouleau says.

That warm water, he says, could heat a high efficiency house. Projects like these require a lot of math and science, but in tech centers, those subjects are not taught in front of blackboards — they’re learned as needed, on the job.

J.P Lebel, 18, spends most of every high school day in the wood shop here, preparing for what he hopes will be a career in construction.

“I’ve learned quite a bit, it’s more like relevant to what we are doing, not algebra and stuff. You still do algebra, it’s just on the hands-on level,” Lebel says, as he sands the door of a kitchen cupboard he is crafting.

And Lebel says he does fine in math on standardized tests.

"I mean, I had no trouble taking it,” he recalls.

Good to hear, says Jay Ramsay. He coordinates career and technical programs for the state’s Agency of Education. He says they are working well but also wishes partnerships with employers were as plentiful in rural areas as they are in Chittenden County.

“If those employers aren’t in a region or those employers aren’t big enough to sponsor a student in a work-based learning experience it kind of takes away some of the heft of the CTE program,” Ramsay says.

But despite some inequities across the state, Vermont’s tech centers seem to be getting results. As of 2011, 98 percent of  CTE students completed high school on time.  About 93 percent were either employed, in the military, or in post-secondary education six months after high school graduation.

Charlotte Albright lives in Lyndonville and currently works in the Office of Communication at Dartmouth College. She was a VPR reporter from 2012 - 2015, covering the Upper Valley and the Northeast Kingdom. Prior to that she freelanced for VPR for several years.
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