Career and Technical Education (CTE), long the bastion of U.S. high schools, is becoming more common in middle schools and linked with science, technology, engineering, arts, and math (STEAM) courses. Virginia’s Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) is one supporter, offering middle level CTE courses in Technology and Engineering Education, Business and Information Technology, and Family and Consumer Sciences. “We’re getting [students] engaged at an early age,” says Scott Settar, program manager for Technology and Engineering Education and STEAM Integration. “We’re rewriting the middle school Business and Information Technology courses with more coding, programming, and networking opportunities,” he reports. The CTE courses “focus on the technical application of many career pathways, the design process, and 21st-century skills.
“National research has shown that by grades 5–7, students lose interest in individual [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] STEM content areas,” so students at all grade levels “need to understand why these disciplines are important and relevant” because “upcoming STEM jobs will be in this area,” he contends. “The general consensus across the nation is that Technology and Engineering Education and Business and Information Technology are moving toward a STEAM focus, STEAM integration.”
In FCPS, “Technology and Engineering Education– and Business and Information Technology–related areas—coding, technology, engineering—[ have] almost a K–12 implementation,” observes Rachael Domer, FCPS STEAM Resource Teacher and a former CTE middle school Technology and Engineering teacher. “There’s a new focus on STEAM at the elementary level, exposing students to coding, engineering, and general problem solving.”
She notes that in FCPS, the seventh- grade technology and engineering education course is now called Engineering, Design, and Modeling, and the eighth-grade course has become Engineering Stimulation and Fabrication. “The idea behind the name change is to have the courses speak for themselves. The previous names were too broad,” she observes, adding that these semester- long courses allow students to take two CTE courses each year.
Domer says she talks to teachers of grades 4–6 about CTE course offerings at the high school level so “teachers understand what the end product is” and how familiarity with the engineering design process “will help students in middle school and high school.”
“We talk about CTE in general and connected to STEM education and providing relevant experiences for students, engaging them and inspiring them in learning. With [standardized] testing, we’ve kind of lost this. CTE is moving [back] in that direction,” concludes Settar.
STEM Career Pathways
“Middle school—that’s where the disconnect happens,” says Sunni Stecher, Middle School CTE Consultant for the Sonoma County Office of Education (SCOE) in Santa Rosa, California. With SCOE funds, 13 county schools offer Middle School Career Exploration activities.
Through a partnership of the CTE Foundation and the John Jordan Foundation, SCOE’s CTE department offers free Step-Up Classes—“mini CTE classes”—to middle school students, says Stecher. Step-Up Classes are taught by CTE teachers in their regular high school classrooms. “[They] give students experience with fun classes to motivate them to go to high school and get familiar with career pathways,” she explains.
“We’re trying to focus on high-wage, high-need [subjects] for our area,” such as agriculture and manufacturing. Past topics have included Advanced Technology and Manufacturing, Sonoma Specialties (wine and food), Health and Wellness, Agriculture, Construction, and Green Services, which covers solar and geothermal energy, green technology, agriculture, and alternative fuels.
“The teachers love teaching those classes; they love the exuberance of middle school students. The students are very engaged,” Stecher reports. In course evaluations, 95% of students rate the classes highly, and “the teachers come back every year,” she relates.
SCOE also helps organize a Construction Expo, a free event for middle and high school students staged by the North Coast Builders Exchange, a not-for-profit association serving the construction industry in the California North Coast area. “The kids get to use equipment, do hands-on welding…We get a huge response,” she reports.
Programs like these can be key to attracting students to STEM careers. “Districts need to build career exploration activities into their infrastructure, devote time to it in school,” she contends.
Preparing for High School
“I teach technology courses for middle school and feel passionate about preparing students for CTE,” says Kristen Franks, technology teacher at Camp Ernst Middle School in Burlington, Kentucky. “I will be teaching a high school–credit class (Digital Literacy) next year to eighth graders. The course is a prerequisite for many career pathways that our sister high school offers. As a former high school teacher, I understand the importance of CTE classes and am driven to support our students at the middle school level. There are so many opportunities in high school, and it is crucial for students to get a head start.”
Students in the Digital Literacy course “can go into programming, computer science, digital design, or web development. It’s amazing what opportunities will be available to them,” Franks maintains.
Having CTE at the middle level is important because in high school, CTE courses often “conflict with student schedules, which can include dual enrollment, AP courses, internships, band, and choir. It’s a struggle to get [students] to complete a pathway,” Franks allows. “Hook them early…[so they can] take advanced CTE classes before they leave high school,” she advises.
“The disconnect between middle and high school can’t be like that anymore… We’re all on the same team,” she asserts. She advises middle school CTE teachers to tell high school CTE teachers, “you want to prepare kids for their schools…Having these relationships will change everything.”
Franks notes one obstacle for middle school teachers who want to teach high school CTE courses is that their certification “ends with eighth grade, so they’re not certified to teach a high school-level CTE course…It’s sad that a certification is holding them back. It’s holding the kids back,” she asserts. “Hopefully this will change as they see the successes in middle school.”
This article originally appeared in the May 2016 issue of NSTA Reports, the member newspaper of the National Science Teachers Association. Each month, NSTA members receive NSTA Reports, featuring news on science education, the association, and more. Not a member? Learn how NSTA can help you become the best science teacher you can be.
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