Few could argue the usefulness of an umbrella that never turns inside out in a strong wind.

Still Big Spring High School students had to pitch the idea to a group of investors during a business incubator class held last year.

Working together as a team, the teenagers researched a problem to find a solution they could develop into a product or service, said Robyn Euker, director of curriculum and instruction at Big Spring School District.

Their work went beyond just R&D into questions of production costs, marketing segments, promotion strategies and pricing. The students had help from mentors in the business community.

Project-based learning

The incubator class is just one local example of a trend in public education designed to help students adapt better to a working world of increasing automation and uncertainty over the nature of future jobs.

Instead of just teaching youths the three R’s of reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic, school districts are pushing to have students learn and practice the four C’s of communication, collaboration, critical thinking and creativity.

The thinking is the four C’s are foundational to encouraging students to become lifelong learners capable of moving from career to career as emerging technology influences the skill sets needed in the future.

“Project-based learning is more rooted in the process,” said Richard Fry, superintendent of the Big Spring School District. “It’s how did students arrive at the project. How they went about it and thought it through.”

Carlisle Area School District has a new curriculum within its engineering elective course at its Center for Careers and Technology at Carlisle High School.

Called Project Lead the Way, the curriculum gives students problems to solve, but not much direction on how to figure out the process. They have to collaborate to meet the challenge.

“There is never just one easy answer,” said Michele Barrett, director of the center. “There are multiple pathways to get to a solution.”

To add realism, the Project Lead the Way instructor routinely groups the students in such a way that they are working with colleagues they don’t know or don’t get along with, Barrett said. “Sometimes you have to take them out of their comfort zone.”

Carlisle is in its third year of implementing the four-year Project Lead the Way curriculum. The final year will involve an independent project where each student pursues a topic of interest to them.

“They will be able to use the skills they learned the previous three years,” Barrett said.

This is in keeping with having students today take on a more active and self-directed role towards their own education. The thinking is this would encourage students later in life to identify what steps they need to take to retrain and stay current with technology in the job market.

Advisory role

Staying current is part of the mandate of places like the Center for Careers and Technology and the Cumberland-Perry Area Vocational Technical School. Both are required by state law to have advisory committees of business and industry leaders who offer insight into what they are looking for in future employees and what skill sets would be in demand.

Based on such input, the Cumberland-Perry governing board could decide by this December to convert the school’s electronics curriculum into an electro-mechanical curriculum that aligns more closely to the needs of automation, said Justin Bruhn, the administrative director of the school in Silver Spring Township.

Under the electro-mechanical curriculum, students will be taught how to diagnose and troubleshoot problems associated with the motor controls and the pneumatic and hydraulic systems of equipment used in advanced manufacturing assembly lines. Similar equipment is used in the logistics and warehousing industry clustered around Carlisle and other parts of Cumberland County.

“They are looking for workers who can keep their equipment operating,” Bruhn said. “What we focus on is making sure our students have skills that are not going to be replaced by technology. We want our students to be able to ride along the wave of technology and continue to develop their skills.”

Much of the course offerings at both the center and Cumberland-Perry included elements of science, math, engineering and technology long before “STEM” became a buzzword in the education community.

“STEM is in everything we do,” said Barrett. He said the buzzword became a focal point to describe a path to greater innovation, an area where the US is lagging.

“We are bringing in people from other countries to do these jobs,” Barrett said. “We are not producing our own internal candidates to fill these positions.”

As for Euker, she believes the emphasis on STEM came out of a movement toward greater inquiry-based learning where various skills of the scientific method are applied to other instructional models.

“We are seeing where inquiry is good for all content areas,” Euker said. “STEM is one of the vehicles for teaching and practicing some of the skills with the content. STEM gets the publicity and press so it becomes the quick buzzword.”

Focus on soft skills

Other input from advisory committees has led to an increased emphasis on teaching soft skills to students enrolled at the Center in Carlisle and at Cumberland-Perry.

For some students who grew up with technology, their only interaction with other people has been through texting, Barrett said. “They have to learn how to make eye contact and have a face-to-face conversation. They have to learn how to provide customer service either on the phone or face-to-face.”

Soft skills instruction includes lessons on how to be pleasant to a customer you don’t like or one who is not happy with your work, Barrett said. She said part of the training is focused on just showing up on time for work and on turning in assignments by deadline.

“You have to make yourself a valuable employee,” Barrett said. “You have to stand out as valuable.”

Companies that value their workers tend to keep them on and are willing to invest money and resources into training and retraining opportunities.

Prior to this year, Cumberland-Perry Area Vocational Technical School addressed soft skills on a program-by-program basis, Bruhn said. Starting in 2017-18, the school is offering what is called a senior seminar to graduating students.

“We made it a consistent schoolwide curriculum,” Bruhn said. “The skills are being addressed in a more comprehensive basis to make sure that every student is exposed to the expectations [of the workplace].”

The skills taught in the seminar include not only proper work behavior and communication, but practical lessons in resume writing, job interviews and managing personal finances.

Email Joseph Cress at jcress@cumberlink.com.

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News Reporter

History and education reporter for The Sentinel.

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