Monday, June 1, 2009

Interest in hands-on education soars in Wisconsin

Nearly one thousand more students transferred from Wisconsin's public universities and colleges to its technical colleges (3,850) than the other way (2,903) according to the most recent data.

It turns out that the Wisconsin Technical College System (WTCS) is the state's largest graduate school.

Students are voting with their feet for a more focused and practical education despite a major push by University and elected officials to increase Wisconsin's percentage of baccalaureate degree holders.

Students are transferring to the WTCS because its diploma and associate degree programs provide students with hands-on education and marketable skills utilizing a pedagogy that integrates thinking and doing. These one and two-year programs enable students to secure family supporting employment and provide employers with the skilled workers and technicians they need.

It also doesn't hurt, especially in this depressed economy, that technical college tuition is lower than UW's.

The appeal of hands-on education is not limited to the WTCS. It also helps explain the extraordinary success of the Milwaukee Public Schools Project Lead the Way. MPS currently has more students of color participating in STEM (science, technology and math education) that any school system in the country.

Project Lead the Way students get exposed to cutting-edge technology, science and math through integrated, hands-on learning. But there's one more benefit that trumps all the rest, according to Lauren Baker, coordinator for career and technical education at MPS, "They learn these incredible problem-solving skills - the kids learn how to think," Baker said.

A recent New York Times article by Matthew B. Crawford makes the same point when he writes:

If the goal is to earn a living, then, maybe it isn’t really true that 18-year-olds need to be imparted with a sense of panic about getting into college (though they certainly need to learn). Some people are hustled off to college, then to the cubicle, against their own inclinations and natural bents, when they would rather be learning to build things or fix things. One shop teacher suggested to me that “in schools, we create artificial learning environments for our children that they know to be contrived and undeserving of their full attention and engagement. Without the opportunity to learn through the hands, the world remains abstract and distant, and the passions for learning will not be engaged.”

The trades suffer from low prestige, and I believe this is based on a simple mistake. Because the work is dirty, many people assume it is also stupid. This is not my experience. I have a small business as a motorcycle mechanic in Richmond, Va., which I started in 2002. I work on Japanese and European motorcycles, mostly older bikes with some “vintage” cachet that makes people willing to spend money on them. I have found the satisfactions of the work to be very much bound up with the intellectual challenges it presents. And yet my decision to go into this line of work is a choice that seems to perplex many people...

For me at least there is more real thinking going on in the bike shop than there was in the think tank.

The article is linked.


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