Dr. David Devier: What Happened to Shop Classes?

In a recent news piece that was widely disseminated across the country, the author quoted a senior executive from the Michigan Manufacturers Association as saying, “During the 1990s, when Michigan was driving a four-year degree pipeline for high school students, the shop and technical education classes were ‘wiped out.’” 

In a nutshell, Michigan, like all states across the country, previously had middle and high school classes called “shops,” which are truly “technology and engineering education.” These types of hands-on classes were offered based on materials and processes with course titles like “wood,” “metals,” and “CAD/drafting,” and have been offered for nearly a century. Many states, including Michigan, require these courses for middle schoolers.

While one could argue that some of these offerings were not cutting-edge technology, they provided students with the opportunities to experience hands-on activities that would potentially ignite the desire to pursue technical careers.

In the rush to track students to bachelor’s degrees, exploratory offerings such as art, music, family and consumer sciences, and, of course, “shop” were eliminated. The long-lasting result is the permanent loss of these classes because once there was no need for shop teachers, the teacher education programs that produced them dried up, labs were closed, and equipment was sold off. So, even if a school district desires to re-launch the shop classes, they cannot do so without significant financial investments.

At this point, this writer must confess to being a shop teacher by training, and this piece could be perceived as self-serving and a lament for the loss of an educational field on which a career was built. May the readers be assured that the facts presented here and the position taken are not to re-launch the old shop classes but to offer a new curriculum here for K–12 students that will provide them with enlightening experiences that will expose them to hands-on activities leading to careers chosen in the “trade” and “technical” fields.

These K–12 curricula have already been developed to provide these hands-on activities via a broad-based “maker” lab with low set-up costs and specialized training for existing teachers to prepare to deliver these classes. Two of these models are “Project Lead the Way” (www.pltw.org) and “Engineering by Design” (https://www.iteea.org/engineering-bydesign). These relatively low-cost curricula do not require massive upfront costs and may be launched in most normal K–12 classrooms.

In closing, the problem of a lack of middle and early high school hands-on experiences for students was caused by the decision made in state departments of education across the country 25 years ago. The only way to undo these detrimental decisions in local school districts is to enact new curricula that bring back hands-on experiences as required career education as well as education for life for at least middle school students. If this is done, in a few short years, many students will pursue technical careers once again.

Dr. David Devier is president of Glen Oaks Community College.

Any views or opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the Watershed Voice staff or its board of directors.