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Central Educators ‘Leading the Way’ to Careers in Biotech and Engineering
In preparing students for the global economy, Project Lead the Way’s focus is on STEM pathways, like engineering and biotechnology, that serve as a vital driver of that economy.
While engineering is the science that enables problems to be solved and advances to be made, biotechnology is the often unheralded lifeblood of the health care and public health fields: arenas which have been elevated to the global stage during the pandemic.
It’s estimated that STEM careers bring in an average of $85,500: nearly double the average of other occupations. And with STEM-related jobs projected to continue to grow, the need for skilled workers to fill them will remain robust.
At Central High School, the district’s STEM hub, the biotechnology pathway has long provided students with the tools and assets needed to eventually secure a rewarding and productive career by first earning a post-secondary degree or credential.
Although she also instructs in the engineering pathway, Melissa Waller’s primary focus is biotechnology, through courses such as Principles of Biomedical Science, Human Body Systems, Medical Interventions, and Biomedical Innovations.
“Biotechnology is a lot of the ‘behind-the-scenes’ of health care,” Ms. Waller explained. “Students are, of course, very familiar with doctors and nurses, but biotech is the lab techs, the radiology techs, the respiratory therapists: people behind the scenes who are keeping health care going.
“So if students like health careers, and aren’t sure they want to be a nurse, we show them the other options.”
The objective is to contribute to the development of the workforce of the future: valued professionals tasked with ensuring the health and safety of Puebloans and beyond.
“To me, Career and Technical Education means preparing our students for real jobs within our own community,” Ms. Waller explained. “The goal is to have the students be successful in college, so they can get those jobs and stay in our community, so our community flourishes.”
And with the training and knowledge offered through Central’s CTE program, students are well prepared for that post-secondary progression.
“There are not many biotechnology jobs that students can get right out of high school,” Ms. Waller said. “They all really require extra training, so it’s our job to get them prepared so they can take that anatomy and physiology in college and then get the GPA they need to get into the radiology, nursing or research programs they want.”
Through the core biotechnology courses, students are exposed to the exciting fields of forensic science and genetics, learn how to take vitals and read X-rays, practice diagnosing patients from case studies, become familiar with anatomy and physiology, and learn the basics of prosthetic design.
Real-world experience that sets the course for future study and a fulfilling career that benefits society as a whole.
“We give our students a little glimpse at all sorts of different things, and they can choose what interests them as they move forward,” Ms. Waller said.
Thanks to ever-popular television fare such as the “CSI” franchise and “Forensic Files,” the use of forensic science in solving crimes continues to captivate Wildcats.
“The whole of our first course is about investigating two unknown deaths,” Ms. Waller said. “At this point, my class is up to looking at what happens to the body post-mortem, looking at autopsies, and looking at polygraphs and those vital signs that go into that.
“It’s about analyzing those data points, as well as analyzing DNA.”
As a result of the global pandemic, the importance of health care workers, and the need for qualified people to enter the field, has become paramount.
“Students are now more aware of the opportunities available to them,” Ms. Waller explained. “Things like epidemiology, which they may never have heard of before, are now in the forefront, and they can look at those careers and say, ‘Hey, I want to do that.’”
Working relationships with Pueblo Community College and Colorado State University Pueblo keep Central educators informed of any program or curriculum changes that may require modification of the CTE curriculum.
“That way, we can get our students ready to meet those objectives,” Ms. Waller said.
A host of Wildcats have gone on to successful careers in the health care field, with recent graduates currently enrolled in local pre-nursing and nursing programs, as examples.
There also are those graduates who didn’t enter the health care field but continue to benefit from the skills, like critical thinking, gained through the lab-based curriculum.
“As a lab-based course, we do a lot of critical thinking, inquiry and communication within a team,” Ms. Waller explained. “Communication to panels goes across every field, and every study. And through critical thinking, students learn whether or not a result makes sense, and what needs to be fixed or changed. That’s something you can use in any field.
“We also teach study skills, note habits, how to work in teams, and how to use technology like Google to share work and communicate findings.”
Above all, Ms. Waller wants her students to develop the ability to think critically “so that they can get from Point A to Point B. It’s important for students to realize that sometimes, there are multiple pathways, and that requires thinking outside of the box.”
The hands-on lab work allows students the opportunity to culture and analyze bacteria and engage in DNA extraction, as examples: experiences that will serve them well in post-secondary study.
From a professional and personal standpoint, the most rewarding aspect of Ms. Waller’s career choice is “seeing students come back and say they’ve applied something they’ve learned in class to their family. For example, I’ve had a student who studied heart disease in class tell me that a relative had heart surgery, and they were able to look at the X-rays, and also listen and understand what the doctor was saying.
“And that really makes me excited, because they have learned the vocabulary, applied it and they are able to understand the world they are living in even more. Health is something we all will have to deal with in life, and that’s why I encourage everyone to take this course: because when you see a doctor, or go to the hospital, they are going to use some of this terminology. And you will have the upper hand because you will know the language they are speaking.”
The fact that Central offers a family-like atmosphere is a strong selling point for students looking for a quality CTE program.
“Central is a really great school,” Ms. Waller said. “Everybody just kind of clicks, and there’s a place for every student to belong. And I encourage every student to take a course in the biotech pathway because there are all sorts of skills that cross over into other areas of study.
“And you may find an aspect of health care you didn’t know existed that really sparks your interest.”
Like Ms. Waller, Kevin Buchanan is a veteran educator within the Project Lead the Way platform. In his years at Central, Mr. Buchanan has provided Wildcats with the knowledge and tools needed to secure employment upon high school graduation as well as successfully earn a post-secondary degree or credential.
“I see Career and Technical Education as an opportunity for students to take an unorthodox look at education, and develop skills and the learning that will get them employment right out of high school, or after college,” Mr. Buchanan said. “It’s more project-based, rather than textbooks: hands-on learning with tangible skills that enable students to earn certifications and be employable, right out of high school.”
Through courses that include Introduction to Engineering Design, Engineering Design and Development, and Computer Science Principles, students gather the knowledge and develop the mindset to become skilled problem solvers and, in turn, valuable employees and/or high-achieving college students.
“The objective in my engineering classes is to give students the elements of design,” Mr. Buchanan said. “Students learn to tackle a problem through the engineering design process, using industry-grade software such as Autodesk Inventor for 3-D modeling.
“We can then take those files and 3-D print them as well as use laser engravers and vinyl cutters.”
With an emphasis on hands-on learning, the engineering labs allow students to explore their creativity and hone their problem-solving skills in an open-ended fashion.
“Some people call it a maker-space: a place where students can tinker, invent, and explore technologies,” Mr. Buchanan said.
Use of the industry-grade software and tools provides students with new and valuable experiences while preparing them for a variety of careers in which that training is essential for success.
With businesses large and small continually looking for innovative ways to promote their ventures, laser engraving and vinyl sign-making continue to offer viable employment opportunities.
Through Computer Science Principles, students are introduced to 10 different programming languages, including the benchmark program Python.
“Computer coding is a huge part of the future and a huge part of our current economic success,” Mr. Buchanan said. “Computers are definitely not going away, and computer literacy is important for students as well as adults.”
Thanks to enriching and valued partnerships with community partners such as Bechtel, Transportation Technology Center Inc., Vestas, Atlas Pacific, and Black Hills Energy, Wildcats are given opportunities to apply their learning in real-world situations while gaining coveted work experience and, potentially, a foot in the door to a career.
“A big goal of our CTE pathway is to offer students certifications,” Mr. Buchanan said. “For example, a certification in Autodesk Inventor gives them the capability to apply for entry-level design jobs. The same thing is offered for Adobe Illustrator and Adobe Photoshop.
“These certifications are things students can put on applications for employment in the manufacturing and design sectors, anywhere in Colorado.”
A number of students who combined the engineering pathway with entry-level welding training offered at Central secured employment with EVRAZ and Vestas, Mr. Buchanan noted.
For those students who want to pursue a college degree in engineering or a computer field, the foundation offered through Central’s engineering pathway is a solid one.
“All of our classes are honors-level elective courses: very heavy in the math and sciences,” Mr. Buchanan explained. “Every student, beginning in their freshman year, can earn college credit through the classes. So if they choose to go into the post-secondary setting, they will have some credits to work with, as well as a more narrow idea of what engineering is going to look like.”
As Central boasts an alliance with Colorado State University, a number of Wildcats with an eye on an engineering career have gone on to study there. Additionally, recent alumni of the pathway are studying architecture and mechanical engineering, with two enrolled in the mechatronics program at Colorado State University Pueblo.
“In my experience, I have seen more students who have taken this course take on more challenging degrees, like engineering, than I’ve seen in the past,” Mr. Buchanan said. “It’s my objective to let them explore the different pathways within engineering, and within computer science, and find their niche.
“Once they do that, I like to help them develop their skills, develop their awareness, and get them on a path they will want to be on in the future.”
In addition to the critical thinking and problem-solving skills that define a successful engineer, Wildcats also learn the “soft skills,” like interpersonal communication, resume building, and public delivery, that will serve them well in the future, no matter the career path.
The opportunities in the engineering arena continue to expand. With Colorado Springs emerging as an aerospace hotspot, qualified personnel are direly needed to fill positions in that burgeoning field.
“I have read that they are having a huge problem getting students interested in aerospace because they don’t have enough people to fill the demand,” Mr. Buchanan explained. “As engineering evolves, things like aerospace engineering and digital electronics open up new pathways for students to gain employment.”
The positive impact of his instruction on students is, for Mr. Buchanan, most rewarding.
“The best part is when my students will share with me what they are doing,” he said. “Sometimes they will call me and ask for help on their college homework. Other times, they will come back to visit the classroom. Or sometimes I will run into them within the community.
“I know the impact this program is having on the students is real: because they would have no other reason to come back and show their gratitude for it.”