George Lucas Educational Foundation

Career Technical Classes: Preparing Tomorrow's Skilled Professionals

Learning trade skills without losing sight of college.
Kathy Baron
Former Edutopia reporter and editor, mother of two.
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Animation as a Pathway to College and a Career (Transcript)

Okay, so, we're going to start off the master chart right here, and the narrator introduces the film. "Ah, the Natural Selection Pet Shop."

Shawn: When they first come into my classroom, I tell them, "This is not a classroom. You are new hires of k9 Studios, and that's what we call our studio here." And that their grade is really their paycheck.

Narrator: Shawn Sullivan teaches beginning through advanced animation as part of the artworks career pathway at Sheldon High School in Sacramento, California.

Shawn: Animation is definitely an area that covers all of academics. To be able to create something in the computer, you need to understand plotting coordinates, so X, Y, and Z coordinates. Also, if you're creating characters, understanding anatomy, muscle structure, not only human but also looking at animal science, as well. Physics is very important in animation, making things moving believably.

Student: What you want to do with the sneeze is try to make the rodent look more round...

Shawn: Also, what they're learning is what they can take to any job they do -- working with teams, coming up with an idea and sharing it with others, and seeing it being finished and created.

Characters: Yay!

Shawn: We spend a lot of hours together, and I really focus on the concept of being a family and working together. If one person is not focused and not wanting to do this project, it will fall apart, but if they all believe in each other and all want to help each other and make the person next to them even better, that's how you get a strong program.

Student: I think I found all the sounds we need.

Shawn: In here, we just take what their interests are -- I like to call it "stealth teaching" -- and using that to teach in the direction that they want to go in.

So if you're doing up close on this shot, you know you have to focus on his size.

Shawn: The key is being honest with your students and sharing with them and trusting when they have an idea and guiding them, and they respect that.


Juan Luis: Really, I've been spoiled here. Like, no other kid can say, "Oh, I got to direct a class making an animated film." That's an experience that a lot of people just really think is great. When I went down to interview at USC, they were really impressed by that.

Just a little more theatricality. Can you call quiet on the set real quick?

Hey, quiet on the set!

Megan: You just get a lot of work skills from it, just being punctual, professional, and just really getting a feel of, all right, do I really like this stuff? Is this really what I want to go into?

So, where's the edit at right now?

Megan: This really helped me decide on what I was going to major in in college.

Shawn: Doing an academy is really important. It gives a chance for the students to be around like-minded students. Already having an idea of where they want to go to school and what they want to do for a living is a huge step for a teenager. It motivates them by looking at other people working on the same, similar concepts. It's a very powerful tool.

Do you guys need anything else other than just the main color shots?


Megan: Deadline for this film is this Friday, and, yeah, right now, based on what I saw this morning, it looks like we're going to make it.

Okay, cool. Thanks, guys.

Megan: I'm going to really miss this studio.

Narrator: For more information about what works in education, go to

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Video Credits

Produced, Written, and Directed by

  • Ken Ellis


  • Karen Sutherland

Associate Producers

  • Doug Keely
  • Kathy Baron

Camera Crew

  • Mike Elwell
  • Hugh Scott

Video Programming Producer

  • Amy Erin Borovoy


  • Michael Pritchard

Original Music

  • Ed Bogas

Edutopia's Schools That Work Merging Career Tech and College Prep installment is supported by a grant from The James Irvine Foundation.

There was a lot for Jeff Merker to be happy about on the last Tuesday of the school year. His shop class at Sheldon High School, in Elk Grove, California, was a hub of activity, not just kids talking and signing yearbooks, but actual productive stuff. In the shop yard outside the classroom, sparks sputtered as a student in a welding mask shored up metal table legs. Fifty feet away, a saw blade poked through a shed wall, cutting a door opening large enough for the small tractor that would be housed inside. But the best sounds Merker may have heard that day came from inside the class, where senior Eric Lucas-Jasso shouted, "Mr. Merker, it works!"

Lucas-Jasso had just plugged an electric guitar he made that semester into a small amplifier. Successfully turning two pieces of wood into a working instrument was as good as it gets for the 19-year-old senior who plans to study architecture in college. In four years at Sheldon, Lucas learned construction, carpentry, roofing, and engineering. He says this program and strong academics are the main reasons he came to Sheldon High, and they're the reason he's confident about heading to college. "It helps when you reach your goal of going to college to know what field you want to major in," he says.

Sheldon Building Trades, and Jeff Merker, have been around since Sheldon High opened 13 years ago. Merker teaches 150 students each semester in four 90-minutes classes every day. They go on field trips to lumberyards, construction sites, and career fairs, and they compete in shed-building competitions. Then they sell the sheds to the public for $2,000 to $4,000 and put the money back into the program. Students can also enroll concurrently at the local community college, earning professional certification in a trade and college credit, for free.

A short walk across campus, Shawn Sullivan's students get to meet and work with their idols. Sullivan teaches the animation pathway at Sheldon High, which usually has a waiting list. Throughout the year, his class meets with and gets feedback from artists at Pixar, Disney, and Cartoon Network.

At Sheldon High School, animation students work with mentors from Disney, Pixar, and Cartoon Network.

Credit: Ethan Pines

Sullivan has created a full-fledged animation studio in his class. It even has a name: K9 Studios. But his students learn more than they think. He calls it "stealth teaching" -- he uses art to teach students math, science, and composition. "To be able to create something in a computer you need to understand plotting coordinates," explains Sullivan. "Also if you're creating characters, you need to understand anatomy and muscle structure, not only human, but animal science, as well."

Although he sneaks in some core subjects, programs like animation and building trades are not directly integrated into the academic curriculum the way they are in career academies. Another difference is that students don't have to commit to spending three or four years in the program; they can take whichever classes interest them.

These programs are commonly known as career pathways and must adhere to federal and state guidelines for quality and content. The U.S. Congress sorted all the possible pathways into broader occupational themes and organized them into 16 career clusters outlined in the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act of 2006, aka, Perkins IV. The law requires local education agencies to offer at least one career-pathway program that meets a specific set of goals and objectives.


  • The career pathway leads to an industry-recognized credential or certificate at the postsecondary level or to an associate or baccalaureate degree
  • It includes local industry in defining the skills and knowledge students need to know to be successful in a chosen field.
  • It provides students with information about career clusters and the different pathways within each cluster.
  • It is aligned with core subjects in the high school.


  • It works with industry and teachers to create lesson plans and curriculum that guide students through the classes they need to pursue a career in this particular field.
  • It offers sequences of academic, career, and technical courses and training beginning in grades 9 or 10 that build to advanced levels of knowledge and skills over the four years of high school.
  • It may include opportunities for high school students to earn college credits through dual enrollment at community or four-year colleges.
  • It has opportunities for students to gain firsthand experience in the specific field through internships, job shadowing, mentorships, and project-based learning.

Examples of Student Work

Sheldon High School's animation sequence is run like a real studio, where students work together to design, write and produce animated shorts that are posted on K9 Studios' YouTube channel.

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