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Michigan school prepares students for high-tech auto jobs

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STERLING HEIGHTS, Mich. – By the time Brad Foley graduated from high school in 2012, he’d made a bicycle that served as alternative energy source, providing enough power to light its own turn signals, and helped craft a model of an eco-friendly dashboard for cars. For his senior project, he’d designed a “Mission Impossible”-inspired game featuring a security system with laser trip wires.

He was well prepared for his part-time job helping to design plastic molds at Hi-Tech Mold & Eng., a Rochester Hills, Mich. supplier to automotive companies. But now he finds himself bored in his classes at Lawrence Technological University in Southfield, Mich., where he’s working towards a degree in mechanical engineering.

“It’s almost a step back,” he said. “We’re doing straw bridges and stuff that doesn’t really correlate to the real world at all.”

Margaret Mooney, a senior at the Utica Center for Science and Industry, demonstrates her senior project - a homemade electric cello - in her engineering and mechatronics class. (Photo: Sarah Butrymowicz)

Margaret Mooney, a senior at the Utica Center for Science and Industry, demonstrates her senior project – a homemade electric cello – in her engineering and mechatronics class. (Photo: Sarah Butrymowicz)

Foley’s high school program, the Utica Center for Science and Industry (CSI), uses technology to prepare students for automotive and military industry jobs. The hope is that CSI, run by the Utica Community Schools about an hour north of Detroit, will help the region’s economic recovery by aligning education with employers’ needs. Foley was in CSI’s inaugural class, starting in 2008.

“There is a major … gap between what employers’ expectations are and where the schools are at in terms of their preparation,” said Jim Jacobs, president of Macomb County Community College in Clinton Township, Mich. “That gap primarily is in terms of employers expecting people to have not only the technical skills that are required but also be able to use those technical skills within an organization.”

Many high schools around the country have career and technical programs, but CSI’s model is unique due to its direct link to the specific job needs of the community and the level of skill students acquire. Students must apply to the program and only need to be proficient on state standardized tests to be eligible. There are up to 90 slots available each year for freshmen. The upcoming school year will be the first time all the spots are filled, bringing the school’s enrollment to 332 students.

CSI’s schedule also sets it apart from most career and technical programs. Once enrolled, students spend three hours at CSI every day and three hours at their home high schools so they still are able to take other electives and get a more traditional experience. While at CSI, they take an elective in multimedia, engineering or mechatronics, a mixture of mechanics, electronics and computer science. The students also enroll in a math and English course, which are used to promote cross-curricular projects with the electives. The emphasis is on hands-on experiential learning.

Early results are promising. Post-secondary attendance is assumed; of the program’s 120 graduates, nearly all have gone to college. (Two students will enter the military this year and a third started his own business last year.) Students can enter Macomb Community College with up to a year and a half’s worth of credits and CSI is scouting other similar partnerships.

And students are proving they’re not just college-ready. In a new southeastern Michigan program run by the Michigan Economic Development Corporation that sets high school graduates up with apprenticeships in local businesses and scholarships to community colleges, half of the slots have gone to CSI students.

Juniors specializing in multimedia at the Utica Center for Science and Industry prepare to film a minute-long segment that will be part of the class's final project. (Photo: Sarah Butrymowicz)

Juniors specializing in multimedia at the Utica Center for Science and Industry prepare to film a minute-long segment that will be part of the class’s final project. (Photo: Sarah Butrymowicz)

In other parts of the country, many high schools seem to view college and career preparation as two mutually exclusive endeavors, but Utica has focused on blending them. “They see the relationship between the two and they don’t separate,” said Jacobs. “People go to work and college simultaneously. The real question is how do you integrate the two.”

Jeff Kausch, an engineer at auto-parts manufacturer Delphi Automotive and parent of two seniors at CSI, already has a mental list of students he would like to hire once they complete college. “If it weren’t for the fact that my company requires a four-year degree, I could hire some of these students and put them to work right away,” he said.

Utica Schools, which has nearly 30,000 students spread out over 66 square miles, is the second-largest school district in Michigan. It’s been a large supplier of employees to the automotive and related companies since the industry migrated to Detroit’s northern suburbs in the 1970s.

When Robert McBroom, CSI’s building administrator and manager of the school’s logistics, graduated from high school in the 1970s, he had friends who immediately went to work at factories, spending decades on the assembly line and earning a comfortable middle-class wage―more than he did as an educator.

As factories became more automated and machines took the place of assembly-line workers over the past decade, however, employers have started looking for employees with new skills. Experts agree that automotive industry job growth will continue to focus on things like advanced manufacturing and engineering while more low-skilled jobs will be outsourced. “They don’t need a welder,” said Utica Superintendent Christine Johns. “They need someone who can program a robotic arm.”

This problem inspired the creation of CSI in 2007. Utica used $3 million of a federal choice grant awarded in 2008 to pay for a year of planning and part of the first four years of the school. Despite budget cuts and declining enrollment districtwide, Utica has kept up funding for the program, earmarking nearly $570,000 for the school this year.

In 2008, half way through the planning year, the auto industry began to collapse. By the middle of the year, McBroom would drive past two miles of shuttered factories on his way to work. “It was so ugly here,” he said. “They were struggling for survival so much.”

Unemployment rates in Macomb County soared from 9.3 percent in July 2008 to 18.6 percent a year later. Getting support from companies skirting bankruptcy was practically impossible. The future of the automotive industry was in question, but planning for CSI persisted.

Five years later, the school is thriving and attracting interest and internships from area businesses as well as school districts around the country.

On a Thursday in May, the school was buzzing with activity. Juniors in the multimedia concentration were filming for their final project or practicing special effects in a computer lab. Sophomores were roving about their math classroom making graphs. Freshman were designing robots of themselves in SolidWorks, a 3D drawing program used by engineers, while seniors in the mechatronics and engineering course presented their final projects. One student had made a wireless page turner for a music stand. Another had developed a solar-powered charging station to take camping.

Margaret Mooney, a senior who had made an electric cello for her project, praised the freedom and creativity the school inspired. “We really get to take it and run with it,” she said. “I’m very thankful to be able to go to this school.” Next year, she will attend Western Michigan University to study engineering and music.

Mooney, like many CSI students, first heard about the program in middle school when she and her parents started examining high school choices. The district also has an International Baccalaureate program for high schoolers, an intensive math and science program and an early college option, as well as four traditional comprehensive high schools.

CSI hosts open houses for prospective students and sends representatives to middle schools. While it draws from all over in the school district, McBroom said that some elementary schools that serve more disadvantaged students are still underrepresented. Increasing awareness at those schools is one of his recruitment priorities, as is getting more females into the program. About 75 percent of students at CSI are male.

Jill Rilley, lead teacher at the school, also wants to expand the program to other areas, like health sciences. Her other priority is increasing the amount of time students spend job shadowing and visiting real workplaces to make connections between the work they do at school and what life will be like after graduation. “We’re not just doing this for fun,” she said. “It really is work-based learning.”

Staff members at CSI also emphasize the importance of their students learning non-technical workplace skills like collaboration and communication. Nearly all projects require some amount of group work and many are cross-disciplinary. For instance, after reading “To Kill a Mockingbird,” students use software to create a blueprint of Maycomb, Ala., the fictional setting. Each year, freshmen team up to market a made-up beverage using math and basic engineering skills to make a real prototype bottle.

CSI prepared Foley more for his current job than his experiences at his traditional high school. “They would tell you exactly what they wanted at the home school and you would just do it and move on. In the real world, they don’t tell you exactly what to do,” he said. “It was really easy transitioning from CSI to this work environment. I’m already used to working on a team.”

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