George Lucas Educational Foundation

Shop Classes Return -- with a 21st-Century Twist

Teaching life skills such as high tech welding could be one antidote to the economic crisis.
By Alexandra R. Moses
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Planning Ahead:

Computer software helps Palo Verde Magnet School senior Hector Molina learn the basics in a modern drafting class.

Credit: Courtesy of the Tucson Unified School District

Students in auto-body shop in the Tucson Unified School District, in Tucson, Arizona, don't just learn how to change oil or hammer out a dent. They use computer diagnostic equipment to fix cars, and learn the green technologies of hybrid vehicles and hydrogen fuel cells.

For kids in the district's welding classes, a water-jet cutter not only represents the latest in high tech cutting equipment, using high water pressure to quickly slice through metal, it also teaches the math needed to program the machine.

And in construction classes, students still build -- in between lessons on résumé creation and proper work-site communication.

Welcome to the 21st-century shop class. In pockets around the country, a retooling of classes in career and technical education aims to give students job training, exposure to new technologies, and windows into different careers. The resurgence of shop has been slowly taking place nationwide over the last several years, partly in a response to industry demand. When shop classes began a decline in the 1970s, coinciding with a push toward college-bound classes, so did the number of young people entering skilled trades. Now, industries facing a worker shortage are pushing for the classes' return.

Not Your Father's Shop Class

The new incarnations of shop are a far cry from the old, in large part because technology has evolved so much. Today's classes incorporate a range of those abilities widely promoted as 21st-century skills, involving technology, communication, and collaboration.

Collaborating with Cars:

Jonathan Montellano and Chris Corbett use a diagnostic system to check a car's computer systems in Palo Verde's automotive program.

Credit: Courtesy of the Tucson Unified School District

"It's not just getting out and working on the cars," says Aaron Ball, director of program development for the Pima County Joint Technological Education District, which helps fund career programs in several Arizona districts. High technology is a key part of automotive education -- and work -- these days: Today's cars can have as many as 50 microchip-size computer processors in them.

In Tucson's auto-shop classes, teachers create a problem somewhere in a car -- or in special stand-alone training units that represent a car -- and students have to figure out what's wrong. It teaches them today's automotive technology, as well as critical-thinking skills and teamwork, says Kathy Prather, director of career and technical education for the district.

In some of the district's design and drafting and machine shop classes, students use a computer-assisted-design program called SolidWorks, in which they can create three-dimensional drawings. And the welding program's water-jet cutter (besides adding a cool factor for students who've seen one on the television show West Coast Choppers) requires users to plot out the settings on a computer graph.

"Students are loving the new technologies," Prather says. "These classes bring the academics to life. They reinforce and teach the academics to those that learn better though applied methods."

Preparing Students for Tomorrow's Jobs

Of course, they also prepare students for jobs. The need for trained technical workers didn't go away when shop classes dropped out of vogue. In fact, it is rising, according to the latest job-outlook report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. It predicts, for example, that there will be more machinist jobs than skilled workers available over the next seven years. And employers say they already have a hard time finding adequately skilled auto technicians and mechanics -- jobs expected to increase by about 110,000 by 2016.

Teacher Hollis Simmons created a building-trades program at Tucson's Catalina Magnet High School at the urging of the Southern Arizona Home Builders Association. Simmons tries to give his students a range of skills they'll need on the job. In addition to actual building -- students design and build sheds, as well as learn to do electrical work and hang drywall -- he teaches soft skills, such as appropriate communication on the job and how to create a résumé.

Catalina senior Jerry Soto landed a job last summer with a local construction company, making ductwork and other materials for buildings. "Mr. Simmons taught us how to present ourselves for a job," Soto says. "He taught us how to dress up for a job." Plus, when Soto started working, he was already well versed in the tools used because he'd had practice in class. When he graduates, Soto plans to work for the company full time.

Soto found Simmons's shop classes so useful that he chose to attend an extra course before school. "I put the extra effort in trying to learn more so when I went to any company, I knew more than just your average Joe," he adds.

Not every student is truly college bound, argues Simmons, who says these classes meet an important need for those students. Karen Ward, of SkillsUSA, a national organization that supports construction, automotive, and other career programs in high schools and postsecondary schools, echoes that point. "The economy really ramps up the idea of career programs," she says. "The idea of everyone going to Harvard isn't going to work when the price tag is so enormous."

Perhaps for this reason, students themselves are demanding a resurgence of shop classes in places like Massachusetts, where Ward says automotive classes have "students coming out of their ears." To meet the demand, she adds, several Massachusetts high schools are investing in updated labs for existing classes and adding new shop classes where they can.

Nevertheless, today's shop classes, like the multitude of other career and technical education classes offered around the country, also emphasize postsecondary education. The programs in the Pima County technical-education district push students into apprenticeships or certification programs or offer college credit. Teachers in Tucson also are developing materials that show how students can continue their education, based on what career classes they take, after high school. Worcester Technical High School, an academy school in Worcester, Massachusetts, with programs in construction, offers college credit through two-year and four-year colleges.

But whether students are looking for serious job training or a curriculum-enhancing elective, these hands-on classes offer them something we all need: life skills. As Simmons tells students, "You're going to own a house at some point in time, and the stuff I'm teaching you is something you can use."

Alexandra Moses is a freelance writer in the Washington, DC, area who specializes in education.

Comments (11) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Mark Nichol's picture
Mark Nichol
Editor / Writer

Staff comment:

Thank for for your note; we have revised wording in the article to reflect the current terminology.

Rob Gibbs's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Excellent article providing a reality check for those having influence to make further positive changes. We are certainly overdue for a substantial overhaul in Technology Education if we are to best serve our students and society. From class size and composition issues to the use of appropriate technologies for the 21st century, these all need to be thoughtfully assessed.

Many shop courses have had little technological or infrastructural upgrades provided to them since they were built and consequently lack validity and relevance. Such labs are as appropriate as a word processing lab filled with manual Smith-Coronas. Still, many shops built more recently are seemingly equipped as though it was 1972 and have a lack of connectedness to the realities of modern methodologies and processes found in today's related trades. The question arises as to who or what is directing these vital areas of study? The fact is that most decisions are being made by administrators with little to no expertise in any trades and, unlike past generations, they have no practical technical skills. At one time a person tuned up his car or built a wooden step, etc. This is exceptional in today's academic-elite. As administrator's they naturally rely on their adolescent experiences in a high school shop to inform and make decisions. Where else would they become informed? This we know is foolish but it , nevertheless, is the norm in British Columbia and other provinces and states where there is no defined standard equipment list, practical skill curricular outcomes or infrastructural requirements ( outside of the building code).

Further, we have cultivated in our schools ( and society) an insatiable appetite for leisure recreational pursuits (sports). Although some benefits are gained, shop programs are often decimated due to ad-hock budget allocations and curricular offerings that lure away very capable young people who would gain substantially in every measurable way through their participation in a few shop courses. I would argue that a well taught and funded Tech. ed. course will educationally outperform any athletics related course in all but physical fitness. It is revelatory that the average school's entire curricular shop budget is a small fraction of the extra-curricular athletics budget.Where are the priorities?

I applaud the use of industrially recognized software and related processes in school shop courses. They are relevant and this is the way it is done period: there are reasons that we no longer teach the shoeing of horses. The standard use of solid modeling, CNC, CADD, CAM, CAE, computer diagnostics, related processing hardware, etc. should be the rule and not the exception to technology education programs. In my opinion we do not need nor can we afford more recreational courses ( such as automotive circa 1972, art metal circa 1980, bed-of-nails-electronics, etc). I truly hope that there will be a substantive rebuilding of Tech.ed. into a sharp instrument that provides relevant skills to an increasing number of our young people: our economic future will depend upon it.

Rob Gibbs, 22years teaching experience in Tech. Ed. grades 9-12 , Kwalikum Secondary School, Qualicum Beach B.C. Canada

Lee Underwood's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I discovered something while studying the writings of Mihaly Csikszenthihaly and his research into the concept of Flow. In his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, he says, "The more a job inherently resembles a game--with variety, appropriate and flexible challenges, clear goals, and immediate feedback--the more enjoyable it will be regardless of the worker's level of development." Rebuilding a car engine is an ordered, sequential experience, with clear results. You either put the pieces together correctly or you don't. The engine will start, or a problem exists for the student to solve. My students are happy when they are in control of their learning. The activities in which these students are able to particpate provide "... a sense of discovery, a creative feeling of transporting" the students into a "new reality." The resulting happiness my students claim to experience when working in these classes is caused by them getting into the "flow" of the activity.

Craig B. Clark, DTE's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It sounds like an excellent program with up to date technology. As a technology education teacher for over thirty-five years I don't like the term "shop class." Prior to the 1980s technology education was called industrial arts. At that time also the use of the word shop was often a negative way to refer to the program. I hope in the future you will consider avoiding the use of the term "shop class."

Joe Beckmann's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As insightful as it is, your treatment misses three very interesting, and usually unreported aspects of the new career education. First, there are very, very few - in Massachusetts only three - high schools that integrate vocational, career, and academic streams. This, in spite of hard and reliable data that career courses have higher rates of attendance and completion, that they offer realistic applications of academic work, and that they reduce dropout rates, sometimes dramatically.

Second, you don't mention that these career programs often have very high rates of postsecondary enrollment on graduation. Vokies go to college! In fact, they are often the best pre-college preparation, since they give students serious laboratories in which they explore fields ranging from engineering to HR, from biotech to web design, from graphics and advertising to management and budgeting.

Third, and finally, these programs are problem-based more even than the project-based innovations that abound in the New Tech, High Tech, Envision and other new models. Students learn to frame a problem, explore its causes and effects, and address how it could be cured or worked around. That is far more engaging, academically and intellectually, than the standard, data-driven approach that drives down academic engagement. And in both process and product it directly effects how they approach their academic achievement, including their test scores - depending, of course, on the test itself.

John Norton's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I came across this blog of a middle grades "shop" teacher (self-identified) not long ago. I'd not spotted a shop teacher-blogger before and this is a smart and lively account of one CTE teacher's work. Your readers might enjoy a visit with Galyn Wiemers, teaching in heartland Iowa...

Jill Bondurant's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

For CTE instructors (and all science, technology and math educators) a new program has just launched that might be of interest: was inspired by the Progressive Automotive X PRIZE, with support from the United States Department of Energy, the X PRIZE Foundation and Discovery Education.

At, numerous free resources are available - including videos, interactives, family activities, and all-new K-12 curriculum tied to national standards and focused on science, technology, engineering and math topics. The goal of the site is to engage students and the public in learning about advanced vehicle technologies, energy efficiency, and alternative fuels.

The education initiative is part of the Progressive Automotive X PRIZE, a worldwide competition with teams building super-efficient, production-capable vehicles that can go 100 MPG (or the equivalent with alternative fuel sources). The teams will compete in races around the U.S. for a chance to win $10 Million, and the hope is that these will be cars we'll be driving one day soon.

Makar's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The idea of vocational training at schools is pretty good.
Also, instead of focusing just on the training part.. the kids should also be helped, rather counselled to find their own calling... & then select their line of vocational training. That would help build a kind of specialization right from the beginning.

Pete McKelvey's picture

For most of my childhood I looked forward to going to high school and taking a basic woodworking shop class. Every television show I had ever seen in the 90s suggested they were a prominent part of any high school curriculum and in most it seemed to even be a required class. I was disappointed when I went to high school in 2004 and found that not a single woodworking shop class was offered. Yes, my high school did offer a autoshop course similar to that in the article, but it never piqued my interest.
I have since learned everything I'll probably ever need to know about power tools on my own and through my father.. but those skills are absolutely not 'vocational.' I'm currently attending a 4 year state college and considering graduate school, I don't ever see myself as using those skills professionally, but I don't consider them a waste. So often do I put those skills to use around the house or in problem solving and construction.
That said, I don't understand why anyone would mock my 'father's shop class'. Whatever happened to it?! Bring THAT back. Yes, basic woodworking skills can be applied towards a profession, but that doesn't make it exclusively vocational.

Mark Dominick's picture

It's amazing how far shop class has come since the early 1990's. It's nothing like it is today and how well it prepares you for the future in this industry. Technology and computers wasn't even a thought, and nowadays you're behind the 8 ball if you don't incorporate technology into your learning.

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