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STEM programs help fill skills gap

Jan. 14, 2013

Arrowhead is poised to be a game-changer in the skills gap conversation.

It is already a role model in Waukesha County for STEM-related programs and aims to expand its offerings into younger grades. One of the few high schools with on-site shops or facilities, Arrowhead is used to teaching STEM curriculum inside the classroom. But it's also adventurous enough to pull students out of the classroom.

Now, it has to convince the manufacturers they can hire that 16-year-old to do meaningful work.

Middle schools

The Jan. 9 Arrowhead School Board meeting was packed with North Lake Middle School students, teachers and parents, all of whom were speaking to the success of Project Lead the Way, a science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) curriculum program.

PLTW is a nationally recognized program that connects students and teachers to industry professionals so kids can learn science, technology, engineering and math through hands-on, project-based learning .

Seventh-grader Gabby Heier said the tools she learned through PLTW were fun and challenging.

"Being a girl in the class is fun, because girls approach the design differently than guys," Heier told the board. "A lot of boys in seventh and eighth grade believe that the class is only for boys, but it is not."

Department coordinator and K-8 STEM leader Tom Whelan said PLTW offers a unique advantage for students interested in manufacturing and design.

"I see that there is such a huge need from a manufacturing perspective because there are so many people leaving those positions, and yet our kids don't have those skills they need to do those jobs," Whelan said.

As the department coordinator, Whelan places Arrowhead students with programs such as PLTW, state youth apprenticeship programs, technology education and engineering practicum courses and STEM and manufacturing internships.

"We started off six years ago (in PLTW) with 20 kids. Now we're at 400 plus. And what we've done, once we realized that the program was so beneficial, we started to bring it forward to the middle schools," Whelan explained.

North Shore and North Lake already have PLTW in their schools. In fact, half of the students in seventh and eighth grade at North Lake have already signed up.

The rest of the Arrowhead area middle schools are ready to implement it, too. But they face a challenge.

"This year, they decided to only fund high schools and not middle schools, " Whelan said.

Each interested school will need updated facilities, such as new computer labs (which other classes will be able to use). They also need to train teachers over the summer and order equipment and supplies.

PLTW startup has a roughly $65,000 price tag. The schools are pursuing other avenues of funding, of course, such as grants or fundraisers, but the turnaround will have to be quick if they want to get the ball rolling in fall.

Youth labor laws

Whelan has this story where he meets a manufacturing president and a human resources director to talk about the kids at Arrowhead. He wanted to know why his company wasn't hiring any teens from the district.

The president said he couldn't hire kids because child labor laws would prohibit it.

Whelan and Tim Alft, youth apprenticeship coordinator, are happy to correct him.

"Since they're in the Youth Apprenticeship Program, it's a youth-based learning program, (and)they can do some things associated with the skills in their area that wouldn't normally be able to do," Alft explained.

By combining Arrowhead's Technology Education and Engineering Practicum with Alft's state operated Youth Apprenticeship Program, they are now able to place students in more meaningful roles throughout their job placements.

Kids can work around 450 hours a year in STEM, automotive, manufacturing, graphic arts or printing, finance, health services and the like. If students complete a recognized checklist of newly learned skills, they can receive a certificate from the state that they can use on their resumes and applications.

"A lot of kids come out of high school and all they have are sports, clubs and GPA to put on their resumes. This is them going above and beyond, committing to a job for one or two years. Not flipping burgers but committing to a skill that is applicable to a good, paying career," Alft said.

It's a new partnership for 2013 that was fully approved by the board. Students are already applying for apprenticeships and going through interviews now.

Jeff North has two sons in a PLTW class, and he is excited to hear them talk about a class that is not gym.

"When I talk to my boys when they get off school, and I ask, 'What did you do today?' It seems more and more every day to revolve around what they do in the STEM program," North said.

North's son Alex said he expects the program to help him in the future.

"The biggest hurdle that I have to overcome is employers thinking that they cannot hire high schoolers because of youth labor laws. That's false. Through this program, they can. Our biggest battle currently … is to dispel those myths in the community. That, no, you can hire a 16- to 17-year-old junior or senior in high school and train them so when they graduate they're going to be a functional part of your staff," Alft said.

Steve Garrison contributed to this story.

For more info

To learn more about programs like PLTW, contact your district's department coordinator or STEM leader, such as Tom Whelan at Arrowhead.

If you or your Waukesha County company are interested in becoming a manufacturing partner, contact Tim Alft at

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