Education Feature: STEM- Mainstreaming Career and Technical Education

Fueled by Washington’s focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and U.S. competitiveness, Career and Technical Education (CTE) is emerging as a platform for systemic education reform in Texas, New York, California, Florida, Maryland, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Georgia, North Carolina, Kansas, and Arizona. The implication for the educational technology and publishing industry is a wave of change enabling educational technology and textbook budgets to include CTE curricula and infrastructure. The rise of STEM broadens the definition of educational technology to support high-technology “shop” classes and broadens the market for kits, labs, simulations, and software and “hands-on” projects in K-12 schools.

As the U.S. turns its attention to STEM education and education reform in general, transdisciplinary programs that unify CTE, academics and arts are gaining ground as a method of increasing student retention, graduation, performance, and readiness for college. In effect, the definition of a well-rounded student is evolving from a liberal arts education to an integrated education including CTE. Rather than focusing on academics for college-bound students or vocational education for work-bound students, these programs transcend traditional silos and tracking by merging academic and vocational curricula and college pathways.

Transdisciplinary Education Movement

Transdisciplinary education is practiced in pockets throughout the United States and the world. These initiatives are guided by the following criteria: (1) STEM proficiency, and particularly technology proficiency, is now fundamental to every academic discipline, job, and aspect of civil life; (2) CTE is for every student and fundamental to student motivation and performance; (3) expanding educational equity and equality is a function of unifying hands-on learning, academic rigor, and creativity using real-world tools, roles, and contexts; and (4) the well-rounded student is ready for college, life, and career rather than a single track to work and community college or university.

The expansion of CTE is both ironic and profound. CTE expansion is ironic because it calls for unification of academic and vocational worlds in the shadow of nearly a century of tradition that drew sharp distinctions between academic and career preparation. Today, the increasing multi-skill and technologically complex nature of work, the aging and ongoing retirement of the “boomer” workforce, and the fact that 80% of today’s workers have the “equivalency” of two years of postsecondary have driven these two worlds to a point of convergence.

The CTE movement is profound, because for at least a century, learning-by-doing was associated with the lowest order of intelligence, education, and work. Today, the news from brain research and neuroscience is that humans learn by doing. Integrated CTE, academics, and the arts are emerging as the next evolution of school reform at the same time that the world of science validates methods that are the cornerstone of vocational practice from andragogy to project-based learning.

Powerful voices are using the rhetoric of “career pathways,” “dual concentrators,” “programs of study,” “career clusters,” and “academic-CTE integration.” These voices range from the President of the United States in his most recent State of the Union Address to key executive educational leaders across the nation and the world. The transdisciplinary movement unifying academics, arts, and CTE will deeply influence education markets, classroom learning, and schools.

Market Players and Models

Currently, educational publishers and educational technology vendors supplying the CTE marketplace are a blend of large, medium, and small niche companies, similar to the educational technology marketplace in 1993 before the Internet wave. Today, textbook publishers offer specialized texts for CTE, but few have integrated academic-CTE texts or related technology and assessment products—not to mention the arts. Major publishers in the space include corporate giants Pearson and Macmillan/McGraw-Hill Glencoe. Market specialized publishers include Goodheart-Wilcox, Cengage, and American Technical Publishers. Traditional assessment in CTE is provided by National Occupational Competency Testing Institute and Wonderlic. An emerging category of assessment is measuring academic content, such as math and science, embedded in CTE curricula, such as that provided by the nascent Enthusiastic Software Company.

With a shortage of CTE-academic-arts integration from the educational industry, strategies to fill the void range from government grants to the formation of new public-private partnerships to drive innovation. New models emerging from grant funding include over a dozen programs from the National Science Foundation’s Advanced Technology Education program for high schools and colleges to Texas’ post-Algebra II robot math course. Dubbed “Engineering Math,” the robot math course is funded by the Department of Education Gear Up and created by a partnership among Baylor University, the Texas State Technical College System, and Waco ISD CTE. The new integrated CTE and academic course is available to every school under the state’s 4x4 requirement, starting in the fall of 2010.

Public-private partnership models include Project Lead the Way, US FIRST Robotics Challenge, Department of Energy Real World Design Challenge, and Formula One in Schools. Early movers in the educational technology industry with differentiated products include PITSCO (in partnership with National Instruments), LEGO, and US FIRST Robotics. PITSCO recently launched new high school engineering curricula, middle school STEM curricula, robotics programs, and new green technology modules to complement US FIRST Robotics’ extracurricular competitions. Kit-based technology educational products are produced by PITSCO, Activity Based Supply Company (ABS), and ELENCO Electronics, to name a few.

Ed tech vendors to CTE markets also include COTS manufacturers and software publishers, such as Autodesk, Dassault Systems, Surfware Inc., and Parametric Technology Corporation in educational CAD/CAM and even video game design. FESTO is an industrial manufacturer of pneumatic and electric drive technology that sells its industrial trainers to schools and communities. Other industrial trainer providers include PITSCO and Lab Volt.

The key entry product for this market is integrated career and academic exploration and planning, which is encouraged across the nation and, in some cases, required as early as 8th grade. Many school systems increasingly have high school freshman declare a career pathway that corresponds to a “program of study” combining academic and CTE courses in sequence from the 9th to 14th and/or 16th grades.
Educational technology vendors who are well positioned and leading the market with career and academic planning and exploration Internet services include Bridges, Career Cruising, Student Career Connection, and ASVAB Career Exploration. shifts this market from exploration to simulation with its free virtual world and jobs roles ranging from bio informatics scientists to virtual senators. Made for “tweens,” boasts 300,000 unique visitors and 3,000 new subscribers per day.

U.S. education is now undertaking a profound metamorphosis motivated by the economy; international competitiveness; demographic trends; and the rapid pace of science-, engineering-, and technology-driven change. At work today in a high school near you, students in a next- generation shop class are creating fuel cell cars, planning to launch satellites into orbit, and designing video games that straddle the physical and imaginary worlds. These students are likely not the most advanced students heading to college or the students who could not cut it in the academic classroom. They are likely a mix of all students on campus and part of a 20-year national movement in schools called CTE on the rise today.

If you are interested in being on the front-end of this transformation, you can begin by doing a little research, including googling “career-academic integration,” CTE “education reform,” CTE “dual concentrators,” or “learn by doing.” In the end, you will see that the vocational shop class of your high school days has given way to high-technology programs from optics to biotechnology. What may be most profound is the technology to do this in schools has fallen to the price point where CTE students have the same tools as the world’s leading STEM professionals. The ultimate question for the ed tech industry is, “Can ed tech provide the tools and products to foster the next generation of learning and innovation required by this transdisciplinary movement?”

Jim Brazell is a technology forecaster, teacher educator and the founder and CEO of ventureRamp, Inc. For information on how to bring him to your next event, submit the "Check Availability" form at

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