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How Better Design of Career + Technical Education Learning Spaces Can Engage Students in the Trades

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Enrollment in career and technical education classes remains stagnant in many Wisconsin schools. Could strategic architectural design choices bring students back?

When we think of school curriculum, we often envision traditional core classes like English, math, science and social studies. Maybe we also consider electives like art, music and foreign language. But what about all the other classes that expose students to non-traditional career or post-education paths?

Many schools offer career and technical education studies, such as robotics, manufacturing, culinary arts, automotive repair or agricultural classes. Many of these skilled trade or technical education pathways encourage students to seek out alternatives to college. Yet, year after year, enrollment rates in CTE centers remain stagnant.

Wisconsin technical and community colleges have seen a significant decline in student enrollment as well, in part due to the lack of interest starting at the high school level. Many public school districts are noticing that students are not signing up for CTE classes. This dilemma is crippling the traditional pipeline from high school to technical colleges. So, how can we improve enrollment and engagement in CTE classes? Strategic and impactful architectural design may be the answer.

Modern needs, old spaces

Careers in many CTE fields are technologically advanced and highly specialized, but you wouldn’t know it by the equipment and spaces in some high schools. Many of the technical education centers throughout Wisconsin high schools were built during a different era and are now outdated and ill-prepared to support student success. The space and the equipment have not changed, which can be a deterrent to engaging student interest in the trades, therefore limiting the pipeline of skilled labor post-high school. There is a huge difference between the performance of outdated equipment and modernized equipment fitted with 21st-century technology.

One barrier easily overcome by design is a lack of visibility. Students may see the value in career and technical education, but they don’t see the education spaces available to them in these areas. Many CTE classrooms are housed in the basement or a wing of the school that students might never have exposure to. Housing these spaces and old equipment in low-light, traditional-style classrooms creates a less engaging environment for students and could further discourage enrollment in these programs.

Supervision is another obstacle that can easily be addressed and aided through intentional space planning. Often only one technical education teacher is available to teach and supervise the cross-disciplinary trade subjects, resulting in a teacher-centric, rather than student-centric, model. This limited staff capacity can greatly limit the type of classes offered and the availability of programs. There are simple space layout strategies that can engage students and support teacher supervision for CTE classes. Before jumping into that, the strategic difference between designing spaces for core classes and trade electives must be understood.

Rethinking the CTE classroom

Traditional classrooms are typically comprised of four walls, with either rows or groupings of desks or tables. A long, horizontal whiteboard or chalkboard is usually anchored to the front wall, although smart boards are expected in modern classrooms. It can be pictured so easily because it is the “all-American” scene displayed in movie classics like “Dead Poets Society,” “Sixteen Candles” and probably “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” if he had not taken the day off. Whether the class is conducted in a collaborative approach or as a lecture, the design does not often change. The same cannot be said for many different subjects that fall under CTE.

Verona Area High School Automotive class room with cars being worked on by students.

Career and technical education spaces are designed to teach students trade skills, such as how to repair a car, construct buildings or engineer working machinery. None of those spaces can be equally applied to the next. While an automotive class will need garage doors and vehicle lifts, a construction class will need a variety of wood-cutting tools that cannot be stationed just anywhere, and a robotics class will need electrical and metal equipment.

Attempting to fit these specialty spaces into a traditional classroom lowers student enrollment and engagement in these trade studies. So, how can we effectively design career and technical education spaces to engage the next generation?

First and foremost, many career and technical education center enhancements are renovation projects rather than new construction. Many recent Eppstein Uhen Architects projects involving high school CTE centers have been renovations or additions. In the case of renovations, the first step is to assess the existing space and district specific curriculum needs.

After an assessment, the next step is figuring out how to incorporate natural light. Oftentimes, CTE centers are found in lower levels or dimly lit areas of a school. With that comes the negative stigma associated with students walking to the less appealing areas of the school for their trade skills classes. Working in natural light has a profound impact on the mood of a space, and exposure to natural light has a positive influence on the concentration, energy levels and productivity of students and teachers. While natural light can be a fixed feature, the rest of the space should be adaptable to future changes.

Unlike core classes, electives change. Career and technical education classes are highly dependent on the school’s staff, as CTE teachers can only teach and supervise curriculums that they are experts in. Not only are class offerings dependent on staff, but they will change depending on demand. For example, if an automobile repair program is declining due to severely low enrollment, but there is a surge of interest in robotics, the class offerings and space will need to adapt to meet demand. This means that any CTE center design must be strategically developed to accommodate adaptations for future classes.

One straightforward way to accomplish this is to ensure equipment is flexible and transportable — this includes electrical, mechanical and plumbing needs associated with unique equipment. While they may not be regularly moved, it is important to keep the space and everything in it flexible for reconfigurations. Installing electrical cord reels on the ceiling facilitates flexible design as it allows for adjustable power supply sources when moving equipment and establishing different work zones. But more than anything, outside of safety, the career and technical education center must reflect the community and school district.

CTE renovation addresses local need

Designing a CTE center will never be a one-size-fits-all approach. Take, for instance, Menomonee Falls High School. The school’s renovation project, conducted by EUA, was successful because the strategy behind the design was developed to address the unique needs of the district and student body.

Flexible classroom allows for easy layout change with electrical outlets and movable furniture.

Before its renovation, Menomonee Falls High School, built in 1967, dedicated its entire lower level to a multipurpose CTE class space. Each trade curriculum was squeezed into its own four-wall, traditional space and because there was only one technical education teacher, the subjects and class times were limited to accommodate what the teacher could supervise.

The challenge of signing up for the desired class at a time that fit in their schedule, coupled with the stigma of walking to a dark and dingy basement for any technical education class, hindered CTE enrollment. That changed in 2016, when the School District of Menomonee Falls approved a $32.7 million referendum as part of its commitment to continuous improvement in CTE. An initial facilities assessment led to a complete renovation of the lower-level CTE and art spaces.

Working closely with staff and district administrators, EUA broke down walls and designed an open-concept, multi-purpose working space for student-centered education. By giving one teacher the ability to supervise multiple subjects at once, students had more options when it came to projects and the times they could be properly supervised.

The reconfigured center allows students to work on cross-disciplinary projects alongside their peers. Even students in a free period can utilize the space on their own time, making progress on their projects while another technical education class is being conducted. This is all made possible because the teacher can be present to serve as a resource for students and ensure safety protocols are followed. For instance, while one student is independently working on their woodworking project, an automobile class can be underway nearly 20 feet away, without a wall blocking their view. Not only is the space more efficient and student-based, but it’s been brightened with strategic design decisions that bring in additional light.

Glass walls and garage doors created an inviting environment where students wanted to work and study. Not only did natural light enhance the mood of everyone who entered the space, but it created a connection to different classrooms. Because most of the space is open and any areas that were closed off now brandish glass walls, students can see what others are working on, sparking curiosity in other disciplines. Additionally, built-in hallway display cubbies allow students to show off their finished products. This enriches the hallway space, making the entire career and technical education lounge an innovation center.

The full renovation of the Career and Technical Center at Menomonee Falls High School concluded in the fall of 2017. Within the first school year of the renovations being complete, student enrollment in CTE classes increased by 15%. The district also noticed a significant increase in female CTE enrollment.

Sparking interest

While student enrollment in career and technical education classes is on the decline, it may not be an accurate indication of students’ disinterest in trade skills.

Students work on their art projects in the open area.

In conjunction with districts championing the future impacts and career opportunities that come with CTE, the thoughtful and compelling design of these spaces can help boost enrollment. Understanding the school district and the needs of the community, the entire space can be refreshed to drive student engagement.

With safety top of mind, outdated equipment can be replaced with 21st-century technology. Furnishings, versatile technology, and multi-use configurations can be utilized to make the space flexible for future changes. Natural light and increased visibility can be brought in to enhance the mood and energy levels of students and teachers.

Design considerations can impact the overall learning environment, and it is satisfying to see a unique and intentional design have a profound influence on student engagement within career and technical education. A robust and vibrant CTE center that inspires learners to develop skilled trades and prepare for the workforce can only serve to benefit students and our communities at large.

Teresa M Wadzinski, RA, CDT, LEED BD+C
Learning Environments Studio Director : Principal

Teresa, is the Learning Environments Studio Director and Principal with Eppstein Uhen Architects (EUA). Teresa's passion is designing education spaces that inspires all types of learners and educators to reach their full potential.

Wisconsin School News | June - July 2022

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