Carroll County Times

Career, Tech Center continues as gateway to STEM careers

Laura Brown interns three hours every Monday through Friday, studying gene mutation on the National Cancer Institute's Frederick campus.
Brown, a Francis Scott Key High School senior, secured the internship through the Carroll County Career and Technology Center, an arm of the Carroll County Public School system. Brown said the Tech Center offers her and other students like her - those entering science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) careers - an advantage.
"I'm working on a study of the BARC2 gene, which some mutations can cause breast cancer," said Brown, who intends to become a medical engineer. "It's actual application and really hands on."
The Tech Center, which opened in 1971, is situated between Westminster High School and Carroll Community College. Forty-five instructors teach the school's 22 specialized programs to high school juniors and seniors - roughly 1,200 children every year, which feed from the eight county high schools, according to the center's Principal Bill Eckles.
Eckles said with the recent emphasis and need for workers in STEM fields, certain programs have gained in popularity and recognition over the past five years, such as engineering and biomedical science, Brown's chosen track.
The most perceptible advantage is the experience Tech Center students gain through hands-on work, Eckles said. The course load is rigorous and involves little traditional book work, he said.
After four classes in the engineering program - in which students can earn transcripted college credit - the fifth, final course requires students to develop a solution to an engineering problem and present a prototype to a panel of professional engineers. The students must research patents to ensure they are not duplicating another person's invention.
"It's a very helpful process for them," Eckles said.
Students in most of the programs can earn articulated credit for college, which transfers to a particular institution, or, like the engineering courses, can earn them basic college credit. Other programs allow students to test for certifications. For instance, the collision repair technology students can become Automotive Service Excellence qualified - a national certification.
Bill Arbaugh, a Tech Center student and senior at Westminster High, said he is interested in enrolling at the agricultural engineering program at Purdue University in Indiana. Arbaugh said he spends four and a half hours per school day tinkering with computer programs he would likely use in future college courses.
The engineering program is affiliated with Project Lead the Way, a nationally recognized STEM curriculum.
"I definitely think I will have a leg up," Arbaugh said. "I'll have already learned the programs when I get to college."
Students enrolled in the Tech Center are often academically gifted and focused, said Cliff Richardson, who has taught engineering courses at the center for six years.
Prior to the Tech Center, Richardson taught technology education at Westminster High for 31 years, and said the classes provide only a prelude to some of the concepts taught at the center.
"The curriculum is broader and deeper," he said. "It gives kids a chance to be ahead of the curve."
Students who are not disposed to mathematical and other technical skills often learn them much more easily in a hands-on environment, Eckles said.
"It's interesting that students who don't necessarily think of themselves as good math students will come in, and when working in the machine shop, use trigonometry," Eckles said. "They don't call it trig, but they learn a high level of math - they're learning it because they need to."
All the programs involve some math or science skills, even the ones you might least expect, according to Tech Center Counselor Carrie Schmidtman.
Schmidtman referenced fashion and textile students, who learn the mechanics of different fabric dyes, and cosmetology students, who are required to enroll in human anatomy and physiology prior to undertaking the program.
"If you think colors and chemicals on the skin, [cosmetology students] have to have a high science background," she said.
An element of Schmidtman's job is traveling to county high schools and seeking students who might be interested in the Tech Center's programs. Eighth graders in the county tour the facility as a field trip, while ninth and 10th graders receive a lengthier, classroom presentation from Schmidtman or another staff member.
Schmidtman teaches the students about the programs and fields questions about the application process. Students apply for the Tech Center their sophomore or junior year and must meet a minimum 2.0 GPA requirement and a 94 percent attendance rate. Accepted students will attend the school for the equivalent of one calendar year - this may be split into half junior year, half senior year or a full school year, according to Eckles.
Eckles said that the center will continue to grow, particularly as STEM fields are recognized.
"It's important to recognize here in Carroll County that you have to have a ready workforce," he said. "The workforce development here is what will make it enticing for businesses to come to Carroll County and stay. There's a direct economic impact."