Adapting to Hands-on Learning from a Distance

 By: Luci Hagen & Elise Thompson

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Photo by: Annie Peterson

Amid the pandemic, schools have attempted to adjust their courses and schedules to suit the online learning environment. Although some classes have been relatively successful in their transitions, others that require students to do more non-book work have had more trouble than most. An example of these at Healdsburg High School (HHS) are the Career Technical Education Courses (CTE), that have been in a constant struggle for a variety of reasons during COVID-19. In interviews with CTE course teachers at HHS as well as with their top performing students, they gave insight into the pros and cons of this adapted learning system.

One of the most crucial parts of being in a CTE class is the hands-on learning aspect of the course. Automotive, CASA and Culinary, three of the most popular CTE classes at HHS, require at least 85-100% hands-on learning. CTE classes as a whole are used as a way to see if students enjoy learning through physical experimentation and touch.

“This is not necessarily to become a mechanic, it's to see whether or not you want to not be behind a desk for the rest of your life, whether you like problem solving and doing things,” said Automotive teacher Brian Osborn.

CTE classes are also a way for students to discover new interests and potential career paths. The issue of not being able to learn these real-life skills through physically performing tasks has hit CTE classes harder than any other HHS course category.

Derek Corsino, the CTE course department head as well as the HHS Culinary teacher, explained that for instance in CASA, a student can read up on how to use a drill, but until they are able to physically hold the drill they can only learn how to use it safely.

“They're learning a lot. But again, they're getting zero of that hands-on component because that's a major safety problem. We can't send out a nail gun to somebody's home. That's asking for a problem,” said Corsino.

 “If you're in the shop and in-person auto class, you'd be tearing apart cars. You'd learn how to use the lift and all the different tools found in the shop. Whereas when you're at home, you have to make do with what you have using small tools and doing smaller projects. This might not really prepare you for what you are actually doing in the auto industry,” junior automotive student Annie Petersen said.

Because of the online setting, some students expressed feeling a lack of connection with their teachers, especially for students the teacher has not had in their class yet. Teachers are now unable to recognize students’ individual abilities and now are only able to base their knowledge off whether or not students can turn assignments in on time, interpret the online textbook and maintain a good grade.

Automotive teacher Brian Osborn said, “I've lost every connection I have with new kids, because I don't know them. I know their face.”

Sophomore Culinary student Maggie Trebilcock voiced her opinion on the issue, saying how it is hard for teachers to recognize a student’s work ethic or passion towards the class or career path in general.

“I would think that it is hard for teachers to see if a student is actually very interested in the subject or if they are just trying to get a good grade,” Trebilcock said.

A big part of CTE classes is students gaining connections through teachers with potential businesses that will hire students to work. Osborn’s automotive class is particularly difficult because he needs to be able to see the skills of his students demonstrated in class before he can recommend students to jobs. If they are not seen working well with tools and being successful, he cannot be confident in a decision to refer them to a company such as Carreras in town. Or, in another instance, if they are not working well in the class, he can tell them they shouldn’t be a mechanic.

“I used to have open shop nights when I've had people in here just working on their own stuff,” Osborn said. “I don't have any of that ... For them to go out and get a job in mechanics unless they asked me specifically to help them find a job right now or help them get to the next level — I wouldn't feel comfortable doing that without face to face interaction with them.”

One of his students, junior Jameson Dankowski, said “Osborn usually would ask you what you specifically want to focus on and that's where being in a shop would help out a lot because he can find out your specific interests and skill, and suggest a job for you based on that.”

Lack of teacher-student connection in combination with complications in hands-on learning as a result is making it difficult for students not only within school, but also for those who hope to use these CTE courses in real world situations.

There is a broad spectrum of distance learning complications, one in particular that is directly affecting CTE courses is the issue of equity. Although HHS has supplied all students with a Chromebook, larger-scale materials needed for CTE classes are often unavailable.

“I have five students that don't have ovens. I've got six students who don't have stove tops. Usually we use mixers to do most baking and pastry things, but I have probably 40% of my students don't have a mixer … There's been a lot of curriculum that I've had to skip because we just can't pull it off,” said Corsino.

Peterson also has seen issues like this in her automotive class. “If you want to rebuild something big or for example work on an engine, you just need to have space where you can do it. If you live in an apartment or even if the only space your parents let you use is your room, then you can't really have that space. As a result, projects have been much smaller or really scaled down to just bookwork instead.”

Since students often don’t have the materials needed at home, the high school has to supply each individual student with supplies. This is much more costly than in previous years seeing as while students used to be able to work in groups and share supplies, the school has to now supply each individual student with the supplies they previously could all share. This has increased the cost of materials greatly.

“We just got declined on a CTE grant which would have funded our art supplies for the rest of the year, most likely because we're Healdsburg High School, and they know we already have a lot of means more than other schools.” said Corsino.

Without this grant, art teacher Linus Lancaster has now had to shift his entire art class so that all students can participate without expensive supplies. For example, Lancaster has assigned various projects where students are required to paint with crushed up leaves instead of expensive paint that the school is unable to supply.

Amid all of the complications that have arisen as a result of distance learning, both students and teachers have managed to find a few positives. The CTE course that has experienced the most success is the Computer Science class taught by Mike Efram. When preparing for teaching the class for remote learning, Efram discovered a program that allows students to share programs or projects so they both can be working on it at the same time. It also enables him as a teacher to work on the program with them as well.

“Students can get together to work on this stuff electronically, even outside of school hours, where in a computer lab you're either in school or you're not in school and you didn't have that possibility,” said Efram. This is something that he hopes to continue using even after in-person classes resume.

Corsino also has changed curriculum in a positive way that he hopes to continue on in the future as well. He has started using a program similar to the game SIM City. This program mimics real world situations, and Corsino utilizes it to teach restaurant management. Corsino also spoke about how students are less distracted and much more engaged in class with remote learning.

“There have been some pros to culinary arts online, which I did not expect. The knife skill quality of all of my students is probably 150% better than it normally is, because usually I have students engaged with groups of four to five around a table doing knife skills together, but they're having conversations and getting distracted,” he said. Lack of peer distractions has proved to help students particularly in these career technical courses where hands-on learning requires a unique aspect of concentration and engagement.

Although CTE teachers are doing their best to make necessary adjustments to their courses, there's no denying that without being physically present for class, students will struggle to achieve the same quality skill and knowledge from online learning. Until in-person school resumes, teachers are trusting that their students try their hardest to adapt to the circumstances and support them by any means necessary.