Vocational education goes high-tech Renovated school is state-of-the-art lab

October 29, 1997|By Erin Texeira | Erin Texeira,SUN STAFF

The sea change in what was once called vocational education is visible in Howard County's new Applications and Research Laboratory.

Formerly the Howard County School for Technology, the facility in Ellicott City was closed for a year while undergoing the first part of a $4.5 million renovation. Now, it is bursting with shiny, state-of-the-art computers and sophisticated biotechnology equipment.

"A lot of people see the new place and have the response, 'Wow, I wish all this was here when I was in school,' " said Donald Lewis, the county's instructional facilitator for the technology magnet program. "Things have really changed. We're trying to put something into the school system that wasn't there before."

The laboratory, or ARL as it is known, is the latest piece in the Howard County school system's growing technology program, no longer the refuge of those who would choose not to go to college but who hoped to graduate from high school with a marketable trade.

Last winter, the program generated so much interest among zTC eighth- graders that the two high-technology magnet schools -- River Hill and Long Reach -- were immediately oversubscribed.

The school board set up a controversial lottery to choose students. Of the more than 600 who applied, 125 were offered slots, Lewis said.

Last week, the school board heard testimony aimed at expanding the program by 125 seats through a third school, Oakland Mills High. They will vote on the proposal Nov. 13.

Most of the renovation at the ARL was done before the start of this school year, but a large portion of the 150,000-square-foot building is untouched, said Sydney L. Cousin, associate superintendent.

Bids for the project's $1.65 million second phase will go out tomorrow, and work should begin by late next month or early December, he said.

The new facilities at the ARL -- where the tech-magnet students will spend much of their junior and senior years -- look more like a high-technology university or professional laboratory than a high school. ARL is being used by some 135 budding professionals for the first time.

Most of the students seem to love the place, half-finished or not.

"This is definitely my favorite class," said Drew Woodbury, a junior at River Hill High who worked on equating wind tunnel velocity at different voltages in his Energy, Power and Transportation class yesterday.

"It's very hands-on," said Woodbury, who wants a career in mechanical engineering research.

"Instead of looking at a picture in a book, you actually get to do it and build it yourself."

Courses such as Developing Ideas in Media, Biotechniques and Theory and Mechanical Systems are part of the tech-magnet program.

Across the region and the country, vocational-technical programs have been revamped for students who not only want a university education but want to get an early start earning college credits: Students can earn as many as 12 credits toward an associate's degree at Howard Community College through the tech-magnet program.

"These students have a pretty good focus of where they'd like to go within a certain cluster of careers," said John A. Myers, building administrator at the ARL. "They are focused on their future. We're working at a much higher level now."

Indeed, at least one student still sorting through her career options is choosing to get out of the tech-magnet program because it is too specific for her.

"It only really works if you really know what you want to do, but I don't really know," said Alexis Moore, a junior. "It's great if you're ready to commit."

Moore, who lives in the western part of the county, must leave River Hill High and enroll at Centennial High, in her home district.

She said she will miss the unusual, collegelike environment that gives students a body of lessons to learn each semester and allows them to work at their own pace. (Yesterday, for instance, students in her course listened to low-volume hip-hop on WKYS while working.)

Howard's tech-magnet program is divided into five clusters: communications, construction and manufacturing, biotechnology, human services, and energy, power and transportation.

Each cluster includes two years of instruction in students' home schools, a year of course work at the ARL and a one-year practicum -- which places students in internships or apprenticeships with local businesses -- for seniors.

"This is the school system's effort to help out and respond to the feedback we've heard from the business community," said Jay Fogleman, a teacher based at Long Reach who teaches at the ARL. "We make an effort to link what happens in the academic classrooms to what we're doing here."

Said Dyan Brasington, president of the High Technology Council of Maryland in Rockville, "I really think tech-magnets are the way all of education should go. It's the first step in putting the focus on the needs of the business community."

At the ARL, students can learn to isolate and manipulate DNA or set up computer networks and run a travel agency on more than 130 computers and myriad other fancy equipment.

In each course, computers play an integral part in instruction, Myers said. Even cosmetology students will use a computer that can scan clients' pictures and interchange hair and makeup styles on the images. More than $1.8 million in equipment was included in the renovation, Cousin said.

Such high-technology instruction and materials are not unheard of among high schools in the region, said Katherine M. Oliver, assistant superintendent in charge of career, technology and adult learning at the state Department of Education.

"Howard is not alone, but it's clearly a front-runner," she said. "It's the direction we want to see our school systems move."

Pub Date: 10/29/97

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