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What Happened to Shop Classes?

by David H. Devier
President, Glen Oaks Community College

In a recent news piece* that was widely disseminated across the country, the author quoted a senior executive from the Michigan Manufacturers Association as saying, “During the 1990’s, when Michigan was driving a four-year degree pipeline for high school students, the shop and technical education classes were “wiped out.”  In a nutshell, Michigan, like all states across the country, has middle and high schools that have been called “shops,” which are truly “technology and engineering education.” These types of hands-on classes were offered based on materials and processes with course titles like “wood,” “metals,” and “CAD/drafting,” and have been offered for nearly a century. Many states, including Michigan, require these courses for middle schoolers.

While one could argue that some of these offerings were not cutting-edge technology, they provided students with the opportunities to experience hands-on activities that would potentially ignite the desire to pursue technical careers.

In the rush to track students to bachelor’s degrees, exploratory offerings such as art, music, family and consumer sciences, and, of course, shop were eliminated. The long-lasting result is the permanent loss of these classes because once there was no need for teachers, the teacher education programs that produced them dried up, the labs were closed, and the equipment was sold off. So, even if a school district desires to re-launch the shop classes, they cannot do so without significant financial investments.

At this point, this writer must confess to being a shop teacher by training, and this piece could be perceived as self-serving and a lament for the loss of an educational field on which a career was built. May the readers be assured that the facts presented here and the position taken are not to re-launch the old shop classes but to offer a new curriculum here for K–12 students that will provide them with enlightening experiences that will expose them to hands-on activities leading to careers chosen in the “trade” and “technical” fields.

These K–12 curricula have already been developed to provide these hands-on activities via a broad-based “maker” lab with low set-up costs and specialized training for existing teachers to prepare to deliver these classes. Two of these models are “Project Lead the Way (www.pltw.org) and “Engineering by Design” (https://www.iteea.org/engineering-bydesign). These relatively low-cost curricula do not require massive upfront costs and may be launched in most normal K–12 classrooms.

In closing, the problem of the lack of middle and early high school hands-on experiences for students was caused by the decision made in the state departments of education across the country twenty-five years ago. The only way to undo these detrimental decisions in local school districts is to enact new curricula that bring back hands-on experiences as required career education as well as education for life for at least middle school students. If this is done, in a few short years, many students will pursue technical careers once again.

*“Manufacturers work to put career tech back in high schools.” Capital News Service, Author – Liz Nass.