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Not Your Grandparents' Vocational School

A green wave is making an impact on what students are learning and where they’re headed.
Students in the Green Energy Academy at Bloomfield Tech in New Jersey built a geodesic dome for a greenhouse last fall and winter on the school’s athletic field.
  • Manufacturing biodiesel fuel.
  • Building a geodesic-domed greenhouse.
  • Measuring the environmental impact of abandoned industrial canals.

These might well fit the mission of cutting-edge companies specializing in green technologies, or they could be part of the curriculum at an institution of advanced science and engineering such as MIT or Cal Tech.

Instead, all of these projects belong to the everyday learning regime for students at some career technical education (CTE) public high schools. Formerly called vocational-technical schools, these institutions have long been known for turning out auto mechanics, carpenters and cosmetologists, as well as graduates in dozens of other trades.

The recent “greening” of such schools—in equipping their students for careers in areas such as renewable energy, recycling, environmental engineering and sustainable agriculture, and in bringing environmentally friendly practices even to more traditional trades—is changing the face and the outcomes of vocational training.

Programs such as Environmental Technology at Worcester Tech in Massachusetts, the Green Energy Academy at Bloomfield Tech in New Jersey, and “Greengineering” in the Newton (Mass.) Public Schools not only are breaking new ground; they also are sending a large majority of their graduates to two-year and four-year colleges. In addition, these initiatives are proving fertile ground for a STEM curriculum that other high schools are only beginning to implement (see sidebar).

While many of these programs—as well as programs in more traditional trades—are offered by regional CTE schools and in some cases include students from more than a dozen surrounding high schools, others are offered by individual districts. All have their own superintendents, principals and program coordinators.

Most are also guided by advisory panels consisting of representatives from industry, business and labor. Panel members keep the schools advised of changes in standards and equipment for a given trade, such as construction or HVAC. Some programs are set in individual comprehensive high schools, such as Laguna Creek High School in California.

Inevitably Green

The green movement in vocationally oriented schools comes as no surprise to Jan Bray, executive director of the Association for Career and Technical Education (ACTE), which focuses on high schools and postsecondary institutions around the country. “It’s growing in technical education just like it’s growing across the country and everywhere else,” Bray says. “An electrician needs to be able to install solar panels. Sustainability is a big part of agriculture. And these factors need to be integrated into the curriculum.”

“Industry is changing, and it’s very important for our vocational technology schools to stay ahead of the curve,” adds Judy Savage, executive director of the New Jersey Council of Vocational-Technical Schools, which represents the state’s 21 regional schools. “Students need a really good understanding of how construction interacts with the environment. That’s what the client wants.”

In June, when the National Association of State Directors of Career Technical Education issued a set of common standards for CTE, the group incorporated green/sustainability standards for six “career clusters,” including architecture and construction; agriculture, food and natural resources; and transportation, distribution and logistics. “The notion of the standards is to infuse the green trends that are impacting already existing sectors and jobs,” wrote the authors of the new guidelines. “A student in an Architecture & Construction CTE program, for instance, would learn the knowledge and skills involved with building a home. With the green standards infused, that student would also learn about using recycled materials or designing energy-efficient features for the home.”

Bloomfield Tech’s Class of 2012

In New Jersey, Todd Menadier didn’t wait for formal standards to create Bloomfield Tech’s Green Energy Academy four years ago. The program, which centers on clean energy generation, energy efficiency and energy conservation, graduated its first senior class this past spring.

The focus on energy came from partnering early on with the utility company PSE&G, a major electricity and gas provider in New Jersey, a state where the renewable energy industry was growing. “They realized that a large portion of their workforce was ready to retire,” Menadier says, “and our curriculum directly correlates to the skills, knowledge, content and wants of the industry.” “The industry” here includes not only the utility industry but also companies that manufacture everything from solar panels to high-efficiency boilers.

Green Energy Academy students have installed an array of solar panels at the school to generate electricity, built a 55-gallon biodiesel reactor that converts waste vegetable oil into fuel, and erected a “smart greenhouse” programmed to efficiently maintain the necessary temperature, moisture and lighting for the greenhouse’s organic crops. The greenhouse, which includes a geodesic dome, was the capstone project of the 20 seniors in the class of 2012. The students brainstormed ideas for the design, and each undertook a particular aspect as his or her individual project, from installing the heating or lighting to designing the watering system or the remote controls to run that system.

The approach that these students took seeped into other programs at Bloomfield Tech, and students in the carpentry, building and electrical programs were involved in building the finished product. “Vocational tech schools have the ability to do that very well,” Menadier observes.

Using Bloomfield Tech as an example, the New Jersey Council of Vocational-Technical Schools launched a pilot program in green energy last year at six CTE schools. “Using alternative energy and saving energy has created a lot of interest among young people. There’s a lot of interest in the solar industry and in geothermal energy,” reports Savage. “These areas are fresh, new and sexy compared to becoming a lineman for a power company or a technician in a power plant.”

With the exception of two students who entered the U.S. Navy, the rest of Bloomfield Tech’s first graduating class headed to higher education, with 16 of them pursuing STEM-related majors. Menadier notes that two of the students are studying engineering at Rutgers University and another is majoring in aerospace engineering at the Stevens Institute of Technology.


Putting Green to Work

In Worcester, Mass., meanwhile, the development of Worcester Tech’s Environmental Technology program coincided with the move six years ago of the 104-year-old vocational school to a state-of-the-art, 440,000-square-foot facility, with 1,400 students distributed among 24 different vocational programs.

Kyle Brenner, director of career and vocational-technical education at Worcester Tech, says that the new building and its green components became part of the Environmental Technology curriculum. “The concept of green energy came into play in terms of its design, construction materials, energy-efficient insulation and a photovoltaic array on the roof, all of which have made a 20 percent savings on energy usage,” Brenner says.

With their surroundings as a point of reference, even students in the more traditional trades have ramped up their understanding of energy conservation, notes Edwin Coughlin, chairman of the school’s General Advisory Board, which consists of representatives from labor unions, business, industry and colleges. “Those in carpentry learn about insulation. In plumbing, they work on efficiencies in water flow. And in electrical, they focus on energy conservation,” Coughlin says, adding that students in the automotive shop work on hybrid vehicles and now use less-toxic water-based products in applying automotive finishes. “These students are given a good exposure [to green practices].”

Students also have been exposed to projects in the surrounding community, the most impressive of which was the design and construction from the ground up of a duplex for an organization that creates housing for low-income families. The new house meets the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, an internationally recognized green-building certification system) standards. It also features high-efficiency burners for heat, powered by photovoltaic panels outside the building, and superinsulation.

As part of their continuing education, students had to meet with representatives from gas, water and electric utilities. “They had to communicate their needs and questions to those utilities,” Coughlin says. “For example, how do you design windows, egresses and even inner doors so if kids leave the back door open, you won’t lose heat.” The 35-student Environmental Technology program also seeks out real-world applications and affiliations. Students tag birds for monitoring by the Massachusetts Wildlife Federation, maintain several trails in conservation lands nearby for the state’s Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, and work with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to locate the invasive Asian longhorn beetle.

In a similar way, neighboring Blackstone Valley Regional Vocational Technical High School in Upton, Mass., sets a premium on students putting their knowledge to work. They have analyzed the contents of former industrial canals on state lands. They also have conducted energy audits of community and city buildings, research that helped secure grant money for energy-efficient renovations. Some students have been paid during the summer for installing solar panels for a local company that manufactures them.

“There’s a sense of ownership and giving back to their communities,” says Blackstone Valley’s superintendent, Michael Fitzpatrick, who notes that these endeavors also help students build their electronic portfolios with an eye toward college admissions and scholarships.

The Turn to Greengineering

Stefano Chinosi, director of the Newton (Mass.) Public Schools’ Innovation Lab, has seen the four-year-old “Greengineering” program he founded grow to more than 400 students this fall. The lab consults with and shares the STEM curriculum with schools nationwide. The program is based, says Chinosi, largely on reusing existing materials and imparting “a cradle-to-cradle engineering process where everything you design has a second and third life designed into it as well.”

“It’s a huge global movement in design and engineering,” Chinosi adds.

To illustrate the point, the Greengineering students build a biodiesel machine and acquire used grease from a local seafood chain to convert into fuel. Also, through an arrangement with local branches of national food retailer Whole Foods, students convert those wreusable, plasticized grocery tote bags into a line of iPad covers, umbrellas, snowboard covers and grill covers.


Since the program is set in one of Newton’s comprehensive high schools, students divide their time between the Greengineering program and regular high school classes—including AP science courses—in the afternoon. Chinosi says by way of example that his students need to understand mechanical engineering to manufacture the biodiesel machine as well as study thermodynamics and fluid dynamics to process the grease and move the liquid fuel that the machine produces. Laguna Creek High School’s Green Energy Technology Academy in California, which has so far graduated two classes, is also set in a comprehensive high school. Among other accomplishments, its students create “solar suitcases” that they send to rural medical clinics around the world. The 34-pound suitcases include student-constructed solar panels, a 12-volt battery, and student-built devices for converting energy for use as electricity.

What’s more, says the academy’s co-coordinator Erik Johnson, more than half of those in the program were considered at risk of not graduating high school before they enrolled. “All of our grads have gone on to postsecondary education,” Johnson reports. “We really pushed that.”

A Green Wave

Those involved with the green initiatives in technical education insist that these approaches are the beginning of something big and that they are here to stay. “The construction of today demands green energy,” says Worcester Tech’s Brenner, “whether it’s solar and photovoltaic, installing superinsulation, or using high-efficiency burners. We have a responsibility to the community, and that responsibility resides in an environment that hasn’t been treated so well.”

ACTE’s Jan Bray predicts that green technology programs will proliferate. “I think they’re going to increase because it’s going to come from the students,” she says. “They’ll want to infuse sustainability into their projects. Eventually they’ll become the decision makers.”

Ron Schachter is a contributing writer to District Administration.