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Critical thinking to become a focus at local schools

Teachers listen, respond to input from local employers
By: Andrew Westrope, Staff Writer
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A new professional development program from Sierra College aims to graduate high school students with the kind of critical thinking skills their employers will be looking for.

More than 40 teachers and administrators from Placer and Nevada counties assembled in Auburn this month to discuss the college’s new Applied Critical Thinking for Advanced Technological Education (ACTivATE) project, a plan to refocus high school curriculums on teaching analytical and cognitive skills. Organized by a group of high school and college educators called the Sierra College Science, Technology, Engineering & Math (STEM) Collaborative, the program asks teachers to focus on six priority skills: creativity and innovation, critical thinking and communication, problem solving, flexibility and adaptability, taking initiative and self direction, and technical mathematics.

This week, two Sierra College representatives from ACTivATE will learn about a nationally adopted critical thinking assessment test at Tennessee Technological University, then return to share information and educational strategies with the STEM Collaborative. Teachers will then incorporate ideas from this summer’s professional development sessions into their curriculums to help students practice and improve said priority skills.

Carol Pepper-Kittredge, director of the Center for Applied Competitive Technologies at Sierra College, said the first professional development training session is scheduled for June and intended not only for career and technical educators, but math and English teachers as well. She said the training would be faculty-driven instead of a “top-down approach,” a continuation of a collaborative process between the college and local high school and middle schools to bridge their career and technical programs.

Representatives of three local manufacturing and technical companies attended the STEM Collaborative meeting on Feb. 13 to share their thoughts on workforce improvement, and Pepper-Kittredge said the college listened.

“Over and over again, we hear that they need employees that can problem solve, they can think critically, they can work independently, they can communicate effectively … so what we decided to do was pay attention to that,” she said. “It’s not a one-shot deal. It’s really a coming together of high school and college faculty as a learning community, as a work group, and really working together over the next 12 months to come up with some very customized pieces that will very directly effect what they teach and how they teach it.”

Pepper-Kittredge said teachers from Colfax High School, Placer High School, Del Oro High School, Oakmont High School, Rocklin High School and Lincoln High School will be involved, as well as Sierra College instructors from Mechatronics, welding, drafting and engineering support, engineering and a handful of other programs.

James Anderson, a Mechatronics teacher at Placer High School, said he has heard from both teachers and business leaders that rote knowledge doesn’t cut it anymore, and he thinks ACTivATE represents a welcome step away from the No Child Left Behind Act and its focus on standardized testing.

“It’s not just knowing the answers anymore, it’s rather an approach to solving whatever problems they may face, whether that be in furthering their education … or in industry,” he said.

Del Oro tech essentials teacher Tom Stargaard said one advantage of using projects instead of bubble tests to hone critical thinking is that anything project-based requires a lot of troubleshooting, which teaches practical knowledge and creative analysis that come in handy on the job.

“Instead of in theory coming up with a solution, when you actually have to physically come up with a solution, you’re then suddenly forced to step back and troubleshoot, which engages that critical thinking,” he said. “(You’re) going to be able to actually make a product that works from conception to finish and work through all the challenges involved in that.”

Having hired many local high school and college graduates in the past, Harris and Bruno International Director of Strategic Operations Leandra Wilson affirmed the success of past collaborations with local educators. Her company wants its employees to solve problems by thinking outside the box, and she hopes ACTivATE will lead to a smarter, more capable workforce in the near future.

“I’ve seen it happen before with Sierra College Mechatronics program or other places, and then we actually have hired several people from there, because their program is so great and it really just caters to what industry looks for,” she said. “A big one that has always been a consistent need is where they can think about the big picture and think about bringing some suggested solutions to a problem, and not just go to a manager and say ‘I have a problem, what do I do?’ We would like them to think about it.”

Progressive Technology Vice President Carol Rogers of Rocklin said a problem she faces with many young employees, and hopes the new program will address, is one of initiative – taking the time to understand the root of a problem instead of merely how to get around it.

“What we find often is that they tend to go for the quick work-around ... ‘How do I get from A to B,’ not ‘How do I solve the problem that is preventing me from getting to B so that I won’t have this problem again in the future?’” she said. “These skills are important, but we find that students coming out of school are not necessarily equipped.”

Rogers said she was glad for the chance to speak with educators about this, and hear about their own challenges in the classroom. Through these conversations, she realized the deficit of critical thinking skills is more than a classroom issue.

“There was a time when everybody grew up knowing how to use a wrench and a screwdriver and a hammer and a nail, and now it’s so easy to just have that stuff done, or throw away whatever it is that needs to be fixed,” she said. “It’s something that educators can address to some degree. It’s something that parents, families (can too).”