Changes under way in high-tech schooling

Clark College, two districts aim to better prepare their students

By Jacques Von Lunen, Columbian staff writer

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A few changes in how schools prepare students for the local high-tech industry are coming this fall.

The changes will be addressed in two meetings Wednesday — one between the boards of two local agencies and one between engineers and teachers.

First, the board of trustees of Clark College and the Evergreen School Board meet about twice a year, said Kaye Chamberlain, executive assistant to Evergreen’s superintendent.

The biannual meetings are needed because so many Evergreen students go to Clark, either after graduation or as Running Start participants, Chamberlain said.

Wednesday’s meeting will focus on science, technology, engineering and math — or STEM — education, and how the two entities can work together more to fill the needs of Clark County’s high-tech industry.

COMPASS waivers

One aspect of this is a pilot program dubbed the Math Initiative. It changes the way students from the Vancouver and Evergreen school districts meet the prerequisites for college math courses at Clark.

Currently, most high school students go to Clark to take the COMPASS test, which assesses their math, reading and writing skills. The result of that test determines if the students may start in a college-level course right away or must first take remedial classes to bring them up to speed.

Fewer than one-third of high school students from Vancouver and Evergreen are ready for college-level math, a January report showed. Many of them just didn’t take enough math in high school -- experts agree that math skills fade quickly. State law only requires two high school math classes to graduate, which means students could have been out of math for two years by the time they take the COMPASS test after graduation.

Those who take the least possible amount of math in high school

will continue to be assessed via the COMPASS test. More ambitious math students can enter through a pilot program that starts this fall.

Details are to be worked out, but the level of math students took in high school -- and what grade they received -- will determine if they can go straight into a college-level course at Clark, said Bob Knight, the college’s president.

There’s a debate around the country over whether tests like COMPASS accurately assess the skill level of students, Knight said.

And so, Clark will try waiving the COMPASS for students who got good grades in difficult high school math classes.

“We’ll see how well they do,” Knight said.

The study of stuff

The other meeting on Wednesday will be the first between engineers from SEH America Inc. and Evergreen teachers to discuss a new science class to be offered in Evergreen schools this fall.

The class is the result of talks between the silicone wafer manufacturer and the school district, said Tom Archer, the district’s science manager. SEH told the district it needs more students with math skills and with experience in material science, he said.

Archer’s favorite definition of material science is the “study of stuff,” he said with a laugh.

Students learn about materials they would see in many tech jobs -- polymers, composites and semi-conductors. And they learn about those materials in a way that’s more hands-on than in many science classes. That has proven attractive to students who otherwise might not have chosen to take a third-year science class, Archer said.

The class will start this fall, possibly at all four of the district’s high schools, depending on student interest. SEH has supported the district’s efforts and will send a few engineers to district offices Wednesday to show teachers some real-world samples and suggest texts useful in the classroom, Archer said.

The class prepares students for college engineering courses, but may well land them a job in local manufacturing without going to college.

Soft skills

The material science class not only will teach students about “stuff” they can touch. It will also -- and perhaps more importantly -- give them intangible skills.

It’s tough to get qualified applicants for high-tech manufacturing jobs in the county, said Rob Bernardi, chairman of the Clark County High Tech and Community Council.

One problem is the lack of soft skills in job-seekers, he said. Those include knowing how to work in a team, being able to think critically and having a good work ethic.

“Machine operators (in high-tech manufacturing) don’t need college degrees,” Bernardi said. “But they need soft skills.”

The material science class will emphasize those skills, Archer said. Other classes also will increasingly incorporate them.

The same is true at Clark College. Knight, its president, met last month with the high-tech council. “They gave us some ideas on what they need,” he said.

Much of what they needed were students who know how to collaborate and communicate in the workplace.

“We are going to integrate that more into the curriculum and into the classroom,” Knight said.

The high-tech council chairman praised the cooperation between districts, colleges and industry in the county. “If everybody’s working these programs, we’ll have a good crop of kids going,” Bernardi said. “Then we’ll spend less time and money educating them on the basics.”

Jacques Von Lunen: 360-735-4515; jacques.vonlunen@columbian.com;http://twitter.com/col_schools.