Sparking success: New career, tech offerings in Duluth aimed at helping students, local industries
Matthew Johnston doodles and fidgets in class, a byproduct of concentration difficulties while seated at a desk listening to a lecture.
In an effort to fix that, the Denfeld High School senior spent time in his engineering class designing and producing a silent gadget he can manipulate with his hands while focusing his mind.
"Teachers don't like the noise of metal bearings," he said, describing other sensory objects. "This is quiet and fits in my pocket."
Johnston is in his second year of Denfeld High School's new engineering and design offerings, in a class that has just begun to dig into a new fabrication lab at the school. The "fab lab" — which allows students to make things out of metal, plastic or wood — is one of several ways the Duluth school district is working to ensure its career and technical education stays relevant as it looks to boost graduation rates and better meet the needs of students and the area's workforce.
The district has always had strong career and technical programs, said Superintendent Bill Gronseth. But post-Red Plan, when the Secondary Technical Center on the Central High School campus was dismantled and pieces of it ended up at either of the remaining high schools, there was a need to refocus and revitalize, he said.
"A woodshop looks very different today than it did 20 years ago," said Gronseth, the son of a mechanic and brother to sheet metal workers.
Efforts had to be made to modernize course offerings to line up with today's industry, he said, and also offer new paths to graduation that focused more on hands-on learning.
"It's those kinds of experiences that truly engage students, and is often the piece that keeps moving them forward," Gronseth said.
That has meant the addition of an aerospace physics course at both high schools this year and a new design center at Denfeld that houses a computer lab for designing, a 3D printing lab for planning and small-scale building, and the fabrication lab for creating larger-scale things. The district also is working to keep its longtime automotive, health occupation, agricultural, food service and graphic arts offerings strong, helping students make connections to future employers through internships, tours and partnerships in all of its career and technical education programs.
"Education tends to move slower than industry so keeping up has been the hard part," said Brad Vieths, vocational program coordinator for the district.
So the district's new focus, with the help of a work experience coordinator, is getting kids authentic work experience and a chance to see how some of the jobs are done.
"We have industry calling and asking for kids to train," Vieths said.
An industry need
Altec Inc. in Duluth designs and manufactures equipment for the utility industry, and hires engineers, designers and welders. David Faynik, general manager of the Duluth branch, said so much of what the company does could begin with the skills picked up in a fab lab.
"I applaud what they are doing," said Faynik, who serves on the advisory board for the district's engineering classes. The state requires career and technical programs to have such boards for school staff to confer with industry on curriculum, for example.
"I think schools need to expose kids to these types of things," he said. "If you don't have exposure, you won't know it exists."
And while the classes set students up with skills to take into a post-secondary program, said Epicurean co-owner Dave Benson, some positions are available to those with enough training right out of high school.
Twin Ports-based Epicurean, which manufactures cutting boards and utensils out of a wood fiber composite, uses computers in its work. The company sometimes has a hard time finding skilled machinists, Benson said, so "for our business, there is definitely a demand."
The new federal Every Student Succeeds Act focuses on a more well-rounded education for students, said Michelle Kamenov, of the Office of Career and College Success with the Minnesota Department of Education.
That emphasis — which includes career and technical education — was not seen under the now-defunct No Child Left Behind law.
"I think that has re-engaged business and industry and post-secondary in partnerships with our secondary schools," Kamenov said, pointing to other schools in the state, such as Rochester's Career and Technical Education Center at Heintz, that are doing "innovative" things in those areas. Minong's Northwood School District opened a fab lab in October, after being awarded a competitive grant from the state.
In Northeastern Minnesota, the health care industry is most in need of workers. But the area's growing aviation industry has demands, and openings are expected for several years to come in certain areas of manufacturing. For example, employment projections from the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development show that the area will have 220 openings for welders, cutters, solderers and brazers through 2024. There might not be much job growth in some areas of manufacturing, but through retirements, there will be jobs, said Erik White, a labor market analyst for DEED.
The Duluth school district has seen evidence of that need as it hears from employers. They want students who understand safety in the work environment, who have a passion for the work and the basic skills to get them started, Vieths said.
"Kids aren't growing up playing in garages as much," he said. "It really is a foreign concept to them, something like welding. By letting them explore it in small baby steps ... it's not as intimidating."
Workforce shortages make these new programs important, said Paula Reed, manager of workforce development for the city of Duluth, who collaborates with the school district on its efforts.
Kids need to see all the available paths to a career, and those aren't all going to be heading to a four-year college, she said.
There are plenty of jobs that provide a family-sustaining wage that don't start at a university, and we "have to figure out how to get them that information and access to those opportunities," Reed said.
School districts play a role in dealing with the skills gap and worker shortage, Lt. Gov. Tina Smith told the News Tribune for an October story that focused on the future of manufacturing and the role education plays.
The state should do what it can, she said, to help districts modernize industrial arts and offer more realistic manufacturing experiences.
That's just what Duluth is trying to do, its educators say.
A path to graduation
The state's four-year graduation rate for high school students who have taken two or more career and technical education courses was 92 percent in 2015, with 71 percent enrolling in some type of post-secondary education. Duluth hasn't segregated its own graduation rates for such students, but teachers are seeing progress in some of their classes.
Denfeld teacher Kevin Michalicek teaches the new aerospace physics course, which is full.
"I've got kids that I know have failed science classes before," he said. "And they are the ones at the top of the class because they are (doing hands-on work)."
In aerospace physics, students are building gliders and learning concepts of flight by making their own wings and testing them in a wind tunnel. They can practice and see the concept play out; it's not just a theory. And for some students, it is how they learn.
"We don't just need the engineers," Michalicek said. "We need (the people) who can fix the planes and put them back together."
Educators say CTE courses can be just as useful for college-bound students, and require solid reading and math skills picked up in core classes.
The fab lab mimics Makerspace and Massachusetts Institute of Technology models. It was at least three years in the making and was an investment of about $900,000, paid for with remaining long-range facilities plan funds. The district has received donations of materials from area companies such as Epicurean, Northern Acrylics and Altec, and a $10,000 gift from Kwik Trip was given to help build the lab.
Inside the bright room with a garage door at one end are about a dozen stations, including those for controlling machines via computer, welding, shaping spindles and planing wood. Elsewhere in the design center students can engrave with lasers, screen print and use a vinyl sticker cutter. They can design a table on a computer and then make it in the fab lab, but also use that design's code to have it made anywhere else in the world.
"The whole fab lab concept is about collaboration," said engineering teacher Kevin Chederquist. "It's really beautiful. Fab lab in one year has been the most unifying factor for (East's and Denfeld's) robotics teams."
Both teams use the lab's technology. Along with engineering classes, the space is for graphic arts and digital design.
Because of construction delays, students began using the new lab this month, after spending earlier weeks in design and prototype phases in the other classrooms. They had to pass safety tests before using any of the equipment. East High School — where the bulk of its CTE investments were made during the long-range plan — has a woodworking classroom that is being modified to offer similar tools.
The West Duluth location of the new fab lab is symbolic to Chederquist, who is hopeful it unearths those who want to be artisans and those who want to design and create for industry.
"This whole fab lab thing is going to open up these Matt Johnstons; people who are finding a home," he said. "For me, personally, that's what West Duluth is all about — untapped resources."
Johnston, who is doing a small manufacturing run of his anti-fidget gadget for the fab lab's Thursday grand opening, hopes to study computer-aided design at the Dunwoody College of Technology in Minneapolis, and become an engineer.
"These classes came along and expanded my whole world," he said.