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Using vocational education to teach academic courses

Kate Allender, of Tesla STEM High School, has designed a course integrating AP Psychology with a hands-on study of forensics.

Kate Allender, of Tesla STEM High School, has designed a course integrating AP Psychology with a hands-on study of forensics.

REDMOND, Wash. — On a recent winter morning at Tesla STEM High School, juniors in Kate Allender’s first-period AP Psychology class are busy preparing for an upcoming unit test, reviewing notes on topics like behaviorism and confirmation bias. It’s not until the second-period bell rings, however, that you begin to see how different this is from a traditional psychology course. Instead of packing up to leave, students migrate over to the room’s pathology lab, well-appointed with microscopes, replicas of human skulls and anatomical models of internal organs. They will spend the second half of this dual-period class examining diseased lung tissues and three-dimensional models of burn victims.

The class combines the academic rigor of AP Psychology with hands-on experience in the field of forensics, the latter as a state-approved career and technical education (CTE) course. In recent decades vocational education has undergone a significant transition: along with its rebranding as CTE, staples like woodshop and auto repair have given way to a new breed of courses aimed at careers in everything from film production to science and engineering. At most high schools, however, the book learning and hands-on experiences are kept separate. Tesla is a rare case in which classes blend a college-oriented curriculum with one aimed at employment. Students say the benefits are obvious.

“AP classes are usually reading a textbook and memorizing a lot of things,” said Christine Lee, a 17-year-old junior. “With forensics, we get to do a lot of lab work, gaining experience and skills that prepare us more for future careers.”

Classmate Sarah Asad agrees. “A lot of stuff we study about behavioral sciences applies to forensics,” said the 16-year-old. “In psychology we learned about pathways to the reward system in the brain which relates to the effects of drug and alcohol abuse we observe in forensics. The lab work really puts things in perspective and makes them easier to understand when we take tests.”

AP classes are usually reading a textbook and memorizing a lot of things. With forensics, we get to do a lot of lab work, gaining experience and skills that prepare us more for future careers.
Christine Lee, a 17-year-old junior at Tesla STEM High School

Allender’s integrated AP/CTE class is part of a unique attempt to provide both the academic foundation and real-world skills education advocates say students will need to thrive in a rapidly evolving career landscape. In AP classes high schoolers are taught a college-level curriculum with the goal of scoring well enough on a year-end standardized test to earn college credit or placement out of freshman introductory courses. AP classes have long been promoted as the most viable path to postsecondary success. Experts, however, say that while these classes have their place, putting such a narrow focus on test-taking comes at a cost.

“When these kids go off to college there have been lots of studies that say they’re not prepared with the communication, critical thinking and collaboration skills they need,” said Denise Pope, a senior lecturer at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education and a co-founder of Challenge Success, a nonprofit education advocacy group. “Learning by doing is more effective in the long term to produce mastery, but that’s not what happens in a traditional AP class.”

“If you really want to … be an attractive employee you need a mix of book learning and real-world experience,” said Russell T. Warne, an associate psychology professor at Utah Valley University who has studied the impact of AP courses on academic achievement. “Kids who want a technical education can benefit from AP and the college-bound kids who already have five AP classes can benefit from the career education. They are not mutually exclusive.”

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