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CTE Instruction Succeeds from Home

Adding sensors and motor controls to robots, designing a lunch bag from repurposed clothing or using an online simulator to learn new skills in automotive repair: These are only a few of the projects our Career and Technical Education (CTE) students have been creating since At-Home-Learning began. “Hands-on” is the word so often attached to CTE instruction, unfortunately with long held stigmas implying the rigorous aspects of learning will take a backseat. The reality couldn’t be further from the truth. Welcome to CTE Engineering, Biomedical Sciences, Business and dozens of other classes offered in CHCCS middle and high schools. 

The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (NCDPI) notes that CTE students excel in their ability to work independently, as well as in teams, to think creatively, focus on innovation and utilize technology. Although many CTE students no longer have physical access to specialized equipment and software, their ability to dive into remote learning is often hardwired into their learning styles.

Since CTE pathways and courses are standardized across the state, and to a large degree, share many elements with national courses, the value of collaborating beyond CHCCS is unusually strong, compared to many other courses.

Kathi Breweur, CTE Director, said, “CTE is fortunate to have a statewide Professional Learning Community (PLC) platform, hosted by our NC State partners, for teachers to share best practices and brainstorm ideas.  Our State and district PLC groups started collaborating immediately after school closures to develop and implement virtual lessons.  As evidence of learning during our remote learning time, over 600 CTE students have received an industry credential with more scheduled over the next few weeks.  We're very proud of the work the staff and students have completed this Spring.”

Take a look and listen to three CTE teachers from Smith Middle School (SMS), Culbreth Middle School (CMS) and Chapel Hill High School (CHHS). Many readers will be surprised at the scope of learning labs and experiences from home.

Jessica Gunderson teaches Family and Consumer Science (FCS) at SMS, and her excitement and enthusiasm about the expansion of learning platforms for both students and teachers is contagious. She teaches the introductory class, “Intro to Family and Consumer Science” to 6th grade students, as do her counterparts at the other three middle schools.

“In early March, we'd just finished our kitchen safety and sanitation unit and were beginning basic baking and cooking vocabulary,” Gunderson said. “Students were able to complete a few food labs such as Rice Krispie treats, french toast, egg in a basket, and crepes. If we were in school, 6th grade Exploring Family and Consumer sciences would be cooking every other week and more intensively towards the end of the year. We also touch on basic sewing and personal finance.”

Gunderson has dived into virtual FCS labs, collaborating with her CHCCS counterparts, as well as CTE teachers across the country. “ With the help of a fellow FCS teacher on Twitter sharing her virtual lab format,” Gunderson said, “our ‘Virtual Lab Friday’ became our new normal.” She said before each lab, she takes a day to demonstrate and review the expectations of that lesson’s specific technique. “This demonstration day is a day I know students look forward to, and I realized I could still give them this experience at home," Gunderson said.

“It's become a great way for students to learn a new recipe, which is broken down into smaller chunks in order to help them understand a new technique, kitchen math, or vocabulary word,” Gunderson said. “The format also allows them to interact with the slides rather than just watching a demonstration. Students have told me that ‘it made them smile,’ and they appreciated the interactive part of the lab. While we can't require our students to cook at home, I give them a platform to share anything they are cooking. This is usually shared on a Padlet with the class or through email.”

"During this time, collaborating with my fellow CHCCS middle school FCS teachers (Cheryl Cureton, Deb Freeman and Jen Marquis) has been the key to this overhaul of the way we teach our hands-on curriculum," Gunderson said. "In the last few weeks, we have started giving students more choices in their activities in order to encourage more off-computer and hands-on practice. These activities have included creating a no-sew mask, playing Jeopardy-style review games with family members, teaching family about kitchen safety, cooking or baking a new recipe.” 

Gunderson also teaches 7th and 8th grade students in “Exploring Apparel and Interior Design” as part of the FCS curriculum. “Luckily, most students had practiced and mastered the sewing machine before we left!” Gunderson said. “We'd just designed and constructed machine-stitched pillows after learning basic hand sewing techniques.  During this current time, we've focused on skills such as ‘decoding’ laundry care symbols on our clothing tags and creating and evaluating home safety plans.  Students have also been given choice boards where they can complete a personal finance course, create a sewing project (if they have materials), sew a mask or make a no-sew mask, create a DIY independent project, or even share anything they are cooking/baking.”

M. Sharp teaches from home Mike Sharp was once a 4th grade teacher at McDougle Elementary School, but he now teaches CTE classes at CMS. Like Gunderson, he seems pleasantly surprised at how he’s been able to adapt to remote instruction. He and his wife are both teachers, so they stay busy at home, delivering remote instruction while they parent four children.

“For my 8th grade Project Lead The Way (PLTW) Automation and Robotics class, we typically spend the first four weeks building and learning 10 different mechanisms and how they can be used, and then spend the rest of the semester programming robots to perform various tasks,” Sharp said. “The quarantine period happened right at that breaking point, so my kids had not done ANY of the programming part before they left.”

“Typically, they are given a real-world problem to solve (for example - a gate that will lower across a road when it senses a train is coming). The kids build the gate, add motors to control the movement, lights to alert the drivers, and sensors to detect the train,” Sharp said. “As you can guess, doing this from home was next to impossible; the kids didn't have the equipment or the experience with programming, sensors, or lights. 

“I found my solution through PLTW's online community of teachers,” said Sharp. “A colleague there had shared that Amazon was developing an online virtual robot, which you can program (called CoderZ) and that they were making the tool free for teachers during the pandemic. So now my kids are still experiencing programming a robot, adding motor controls, sensors, and lights, just as they would in the lab. I'd of course prefer that they were able to work together, sharing ideas across a table, and holding real equipment in their hands...but at least the core understandings are still getting across!”

With remote learning, platforms can offer both synchronous and asynchonous instruction. As teachers are discovering around the world, instruction from home is often best achieved with a mix, allowing for differentiation and independent pacing, as well as offering relief from “Zoom fatigue.”

Sharp said, “I record and share videos of how to do any tricky parts in CoderZ each week. Then I have office hours when kids can ask for help (but that really happens at all hours ... you can just expect a quicker response time during those hours). Often my answer to the kids is another screencast of me working in CoderZ, showing a hint or a place to look.” 

Robert Ballard teaches Automotive Services at CHHS. “This year has been a great success in the automotive program with numerous certifications being awarded to students. With the success has also come hard times with Covid-19,” Ballard said. Teaching automotive is complex and challenging at the best of times but Ballard said trying to transition to an online format has not been easy. 

“I had a feeling weeks ahead of March 13th that we might be missing school, so I immediately started doing Professional Development with online automotive teaching platforms,” Ballard said. “I decided to go with Electude, known around the world for bringing the most up to date automotive training to students with an online platform. Electude is a leading training simulator and interactive online classroom for automotive students. I have also utilized technical and training videos from the magazine, “Tomorrow's Technician”. Students are still getting the technical knowledge needed in today's fast-paced automotive industry. The students enjoy this even more than doing the regular book work we had during school.”

Ballard said, “Automotive Service Excellences (ASE), has also provided free Instructor training each week, so my skills do not suffer during these times of crisis. I have also worked in a statewide PLC with the head of automotive, James Pressly, to stay up to date on the most important resources for automotive students. I wish I could do more for these students but they have a whole industry backing them up with training in these hard times.”

Nationally, many educators who are familiar with the ever-evolving curricula of CTE claim that a vast majority of people who have been deemed essential workers are all doing CTE work. Certainly these students are sharpening their life skills to maintain a competitive edge as they continue their education and enter the workforce.