Discuss as:

Michigan high school prepares students for the real world - and real high-tech jobs

Sarah Butrymowicz / The Hechinger Report

A freshman at the Utica Center for Science and Industry uses SolidWorks, a 3D drawing program, to create a robot modeled after herself.

Editor's note: This story is one in a series on education issues featured at the 2013 Education Nation summit in New York City on Oct. 6-8. To learn more, please visit EducationNation.com.

By Sarah Butrymowicz, The Hechinger Report

STERLING HEIGHTS, Mich. – By the time Brad Foley graduated from high school in 2012, he’d made a bicycle that served as an alternative energy source 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 toward a degree in mechanical engineering.

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

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 to be able to use those technical skills within an organization.”

Linking student skills with employer needs

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.

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.”

Despite auto industry woes, school thrived

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. Freshmen 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. Next year, she will attend Western Michigan University to study engineering and music.

CSI prepared Foley more for his current job than his experiences at his traditional high school, he says. “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. 

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University.