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Behind every good robot ... is a CTE student

How today’s high school career and technical education programs prepare students for a heavily automated future
  • RELEVANT ROBOTICS—Students at the Lehigh Career and Technical Institute in Pennsylvania work from a curriculum that has been shaped by industry experts to ensure the high school’s instructors are teaching practical, marketable tech skills.
  • PROGRAMMING PROMISE—Juniors at Lehigh Career and Technical Institute participate in internships that continue during their senior year and often lead to full- and part-time jobs after graduation.

To give students experience flying larger drones, educators at Duval High School near Washington, D.C., got creative. Federal Aviation Administration security restrictions limit unmanned aeronautic flights over sensitive locations.

“We are building an addition to the school that will allow us to fly drones inside,” says Christina Howland, coordinator of the four-year Aerospace Engineering and Aviation Technology program at the high school, located in Prince George’s County, Maryland.

The use of drones and robots is flourishing across the government and private sectors. The increasingly automated manufacturing industry will require 3.4 million new workers with more advanced tech skills in the next decade, according to analyst estimates.

Appreciating this, high school career and technical education programs now focus heavily on robotics, unmanned aviation technology and mechatronics (the technological combination of electronics and mechanical engineering). These STEM-oriented programs provide students with the invaluable and transferable skills they need to jump-start potentially lucrative careers.


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Many jobs will require four-year college degrees. However, technician jobs may only require an associate degree or a certification from an accredited community college or technical or vocational school.

“The biggest challenge our member companies face is finding enough qualified people to fill the job openings they have,” says Bob Doyle, vice president of the Association for Advancing Automation and the Automation Industry Association.

On the right flight path

The strong local aerospace economy in Prince George’s County and the local activities of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center spurred the launch of Duval’s aviation technology program.

Funded by the school district, the college preparatory track includes traditional honors core courses and aerospace-focused CTE offerings such as meteorology, engineering communications and air traffic control systems.


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Eighth-grade students can apply for one of the 100 to 150 seats in the program, and are chosen by criteria that include grades and standardized test scores.

Students build rockets, planes and robots, and use flight computers and 3D-printed models to create mock airfields and flight paths. “Our scholars then use drones to fly the paths that they create,” Howland says.

Currently, students can take a course to prepare for the FAA air traffic controller exam. Next year, the program will include a curriculum pathway that leads to a drone pilot’s license. Students can earn that certification without a college degree and use it for jobs in aerial photography, real estate, shipping and delivery, and agriculture.

But finding and keeping teachers who have real-world, specific content knowledge can be challenging, says Felicia Martin Latief, STEM instructional supervisor for Prince George’s County Schools. Some workers in these high-demand industries may not be willing to leave lucrative careers in the private sector.

“Most of Duval’s Aerospace Engineering and Aviation Technology teachers found the program through individual searches and a personal desire to give back to the community through education,” says Latief.

Instructors have experience in the military and as pilots, aerospace engineers, air traffic controllers, and physics and science teachers. Staff training occurs outside the school with industry organizations that devised the curriculum. On-site, instructors enhance their skills through collaborative planning.

Companies compete for students

In nearby Pennsylvania, the $7 billion local manufacturing sector, which is powered by automation and robotics, steers the programs offered at Lehigh Career and Technical Institute, which serves students from nine area districts.

The high school’s electromechanical and mechatronics technology program prepares about 140 students for jobs in laboratory engineering or as electrical, mechanical or process control technicians. Process control technicians, who earn on average nearly $55,000 per year, evaluate manufacturing systems to improve production.

The program is free, but students may have to purchase safety equipment, specialized clothing or other supplies. Students can enroll in the school during any year of high school and can select full- or half-day programs. Through a flex-day option, time-strapped students can customize their schedules in coordination with their home high schools.

In the classroom, students have built space heaters, conveyor systems, miniature manufacturing cells and self-guided robots using state-of-the-art equipment, much of which is donated or purchased with assistance from industry partners.

“Our program labs are fitted with the same tools, software and industrial equipment that you see in the workplace,” says Precious Petty, the school’s public relations coordinator.

Industry experts serve on the school’s occupational advisory council to help ensure that students are learning practical, marketable skills. “It’s one thing to sketch a simple circuit based on concepts in Ohm’s law or Watt’s law,” Petty says.

“It’s another thing entirely to apply those concepts while troubleshooting a conveyor belt or programming a robot. The latter is what happens at LCTI.”

By performing well on end-of-program assessments, students can—and routinely do—earn college credit for high school coursework. They can also dual-enroll to earn additional college credits at Lehigh Carbon Community College, located across the street.

Robust CTE education and the marketable skills that come with it—mastering complex material, solving difficult problems and innovating independently or collaboratively—have contributed to early success for the institute’s students.

Many companies recruit students in their junior year for paid summer internships, which continue during senior year, says Jan Brna, director of postsecondary and workforce education. Upon graduation, 82 percent of students are hired as full-time employees.

Others go to college and continue to work part time or full time while they earn their degrees. “The competition for our students is incredible,” Brna says. “They often have more than one job offer.”

Following the training plan

Along with technical lab instruction, Chippewa Valley Schools’ two-year mechatronics and robotics CTE program focuses on soft skills—critical thinking, collaboration, creative problem-solving and effective communication.

Students hone their problem-solving and troubleshooting abilities by competing in robotics and mechatronics competitions. Mechatronics students receive instruction from industry experts and visit industrial sites.

Seniors who participate in a mechatronics and robotics internship gain paid, on-the-job work experience in a career area of their choice. Each student follows an individual educational training plan that details the parameters and objectives for the internship, and earns wages equivalent to those earned by other trainees in the field.

Additionally, the state of Michigan sponsors a postsecondary training opportunity through an apprenticeship program called MAT2, which provides free tuition and paid employment. Students alternate between classroom instruction and on-the-job training.

A couple of years ago, Chippewa Valley Schools solved the problem of finding a mechatronics instructor by hiring from within.

Jomo Walker, a robotics hobbyist who had been teaching computer-assisted design for more than a decade, benefited from a new rule allowing a teacher in a “related CTE field” to change roles. The district sent him for training, which included courses at Fanuc America, a global robotics automation supplier headquartered in Michigan.

Walker now decides how to teach the comprehensive state mechatronics curriculum, which in part requires students to master programming and build electronic systems and drones. “Hands-on projects keep the students engaged, and I find that they learn faster,” he says. 


Kelley R. Taylor is a freelance writer specializing in law and education.