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Creating authentic learning experiences through CTE

Monday, February 12, 2018
Foods and nutrition students at Roland Story learn about the nutritional value and cooking techniques for grain products.

Today’s career and technical education programs (CTE) have become increasingly innovative. Extending well beyond the development of simple technical skills, high-quality CTE programs increase student engagement through the integration of technical and academic skills in hands-on, real-world learning experiences. But these programs don’t happen on their own. It takes passionate and dedicated teachers to help students build the necessary skills and knowledge to succeed in college and careers.

In recognition of Career and Technical Education (CTE) Month, we asked a few of these teachers from across the state to tell us how they came to the profession, share ways their CTE programs integrate core academic areas, and explain why these programs are important for students and the state. Here is what they said.

Mary Dermit, Health Sciences teacher

Mary Dermit

Sioux City Community Schools

How did you become interested in teaching health science?
I worked as a registered nurse in a hospital setting for 16 years, but I have always been interested in teaching. I always thought I would teach at the college level, but the opportunity arose for me to be a school nurse. When I first started in the mid ‘90s, I spent half of my time as a school nurse and the other half teaching health sciences. Back then, I had five students. Today we have four full-time health science teachers for 570 students from all three Sioux City public high schools.

How does your program integrate core academic subject matter?
Our health science programs incorporate core academics in ways that make the subject matter relevant to students’ interests. For example, the English and health science teachers in our junior academy recently partnered with the Siouxland District Health Department to create a marketing campaign around child wellness visits, immunizations, and dental visits. Student teams created audio and video PSA (public service) announcements and informational posters based on community needs and feedback from radio, television, and public health professionals. The ultimate goal is for one PSA package to be selected and used as a community education product.

Many of the students in Sioux City Public Schools’ CNA program continue their education after high school to become registered nurses.

How does your health science program align with regional workforce needs?
We look at area needs analyses with our advisory committee and we visit with health-care community members in Sioux City and surrounding areas. Our programs provide foundational entry-level certifications so students can enter the workforce or work in the field while going to college. We partner with Western Iowa Tech (WIT) Community College so that it is easy for students to transition into more advanced programs. For example, students can enter WIT’s surgical technology pathway during their senior year of high school.

Many of our students are offered jobs after they complete their practicum and clinical hours. We have had students in our pharmacy technician program work for larger chain pharmacies and then transfer to another location when they go to college. Many of our certified nursing assistant (CNA) students go on to college to become nurses. We are short on health-care providers, so our programs really do help grow our own workforce in our communities.


Katie Brouwer, Family and Consumer Sciences (FCS) teacher

Katie Brouwer

Roland Story Community Schools

What made you want to become an FCS teacher?
Three things really attracted me to the career:

  1. The ability to be creative. I love thinking of new ways and ideas to do things. FCS covers so many different areas – food preparation and nutrition, interior design, fashion design, human services, child development, and personal finance. 
  2. Connections and relationships with my students and the community. Our programs really do engage students within the community. We really are producing students who are able to go back to the community and make it a better place. As a teacher, I rely on community connections, too. I wouldn’t be as good of a teacher if I didn’t take advantage of their expertise.
  3. Independence. As a one-person department, I get to come up with ideas and carry them out. There is a certain amount of pressure that comes with that, but my day is never boring. And I have no problem reaching my 10,000 steps a day!

How does FCS differ from the home economics classes of our grandparents’ days?
There has really been a shift in how FCS is taught. You have to look at FCS as a contemporary STEM field. Students apply knowledge from math and science to real-life applications, which makes so much more sense to them. I believe that a successful FCS program aims to create a classroom without walls. Our community and business partners take active roles in creating authentic learning experiences. For example, the manager of the McDonald’s chain in Story County invited our students on a field trip to learn about what goes on behind the scenes in a restaurant. Our students also earn an Iowa Food Handler certification, which will help them in part-time jobs even if they don’t pursue careers in the restaurant industry.

Roland Story FCS students competed as members of the Family, Career, and Community Leaders of America (FCCLA) student organization where they presented projects on children, fashion design, and food innovations at the district STAR competition.

How do FCS programs help students become independent thinkers and problem solvers?
One example of this is a contest we entered through the Home Baking Association. Every year they ask teachers to submit some of their best projects. I submitted a problem-based learning scenario where students needed to make a muffin that met the requirements of the federal Healthy Kids Act. This involved the students doing practice runs, forming tasting panels, and using different substitutions to meet the federal requirements. There wasn’t one right answer. Students could take risks and be creative in their problem solving. Students came up with options like lemon zucchini muffins, pumpkin, and cherry chocolate. The project also included a reflection piece, a cost breakdown, and a marketing plan for how they would sell the product. It is amazing how a classroom comes to life when students are fully engaged.

As a side note, this project titled “The Muffin Man & the Healthy Kids Act” won the 2017 Home Baking Association’s Educator Award contest. Brouwer, the first Iowa teacher to receive this national award, was recognized at the association’s national conference in New Orleans. Her win has spurred opportunities to lead workshops for other teachers and network with representatives from leading industry manufacturers.

Kyle Kuhlers, Information Technology teacher

Kyle Kuhlers

Union Community Schools

What was your background prior to becoming an IT teacher?
I didn’t start out wanting to be a teacher. I graduated from college with degrees in finance and marketing. I actually worked as an accountant for eight years, during which I took advantage of education benefits through my employer to become certified to teach. My interests in teaching IT piqued as I observed my students’ interests in computer gaming. That led to application development, and into cyber security. 

One big thing about teaching IT is that it is constantly changing. You have to stay up on what is going on in the field by making as many industry connections as possible and taking advantage of learning over breaks. When you teach IT, you all learn from each other. You have to be comfortable knowing that sometimes students will know more about a specific topic than you do – developing geo-filters in Snapchat, for instance. Take advantage of that, allow them to do demonstrations on things they know. That is the best way to engage students and get them excited about the field.

How do you get students interested in the growing IT field?
We are really starting to see more student interest in IT since we began introducing concepts earlier. You really need to pique student interest in elementary and middle school. By the time they get to high school it is too late. That is why it is important to have good relationships with educators from the elementary and middle schools. I work closely with our middle school teacher and she is modifying her class so that it flows smoothly into my high school programming course.

Being flexible to the interests of your students is also key. That can be a challenge when you have students interested in different areas. But when students are really interested in something, even if it is video games, you can show students how programming makes it possible for a computer to use that information. When kids see that connection, and they see everything behind the scenes, they are engaged and they see how math and science relate and translate into careers.

Union High School students work as a team to ward off a cyber-attack during the IT Olympics.

How do CTE programs prepare students for college and careers?
CTE incorporates project-based learning that gets into the how and the why. It’s hands on, and the relevance of IT translates into all fields and careers. Students experience this best by getting these hands-on opportunities.

Every Thursday night I meet with a group of students from four schools on cyber security. They learn from industry professionals and practice real-life problems in preparation for the IT Olympics using Iowa State University’s “sandbox,” a testing environment used in software development to isolate untested code changes and experimentation. This competition, held at Iowa State University, is for high school students in the areas of robotics, game design, and cyber defense. They work as a team to ward off a real-world cyber-attack. Through this experience they make industry contacts and apply their knowledge and skills in a real-world application. 

With CTE, and IT in particular, students get to apply their math and science knowledge in real-life settings. They can try things and experiment. We tell students to try things because failure is just as important as success – that is how you learn. CTE is at the forefront of helping students find the path they want to take after graduation because they get to apply their knowledge with something practical. It is not arbitrary; things have to work together. You aren’t going to go out into the world and use them individually, they need to connect,

Union High School students perform an IT audit.

Sioux City Public School students see connections between history and health as part of lesson on medical advancements in war medicine.
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Printed from the Iowa Department of Education website on May 20, 2018 at 10:46am.