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WF Tech Ed on the cutting edge

Students in Chad Anderson's Career and Technical Education class work on various projects recently in the Cheney Middle School. Tyler Shoberg / West Fargo Pioneer

Tech ed has come a long way from simply building bird houses or spot-welding sheet metal tool boxes, at least at West Fargo Public Schools.

Nowadays, West Fargo students are just as likely to be programming robots as they are to running a band saw.

That is thanks in large part to a shift of focus by the technical education department. With such a high demand in the workforce for people with 21st-Century skills, WFPS decided it was best to start that training young, before students graduated from high school.

"We're kind of the best-kept secret. We had conferences last night, and the parents are eating this up," Cheney Middle School. technical education instructor Chad Anderson said.

And with the advent of STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Mathamatics) at the Lodoen Community Center, and a makeover of the district's Career and Technical Education Department, students today are getting just the experience needed to follow careers in a tech-savvy work force.

"We're really fortunate, because the West Fargo School District has done so much for as far as making sure we have the technology," Anderson said.

Anderson and fellow instructor Jim Thomas, along with CTE director Greg Grooters and Cheney Middle School Principal Donald Lennon, recently accepted the Director's Award of Excellence for the school's technical education program, during the 41st Annual Department of Career and Technical Education Professional Development Conference in Bismarck.

"As far as the state is concerned, it's the highest award you can get," Anderson said.

The award is an acknowledgement of superior career and technical education programs in North Dakota. According to a press release, Cheney Middle School's program was recognized specifically for the "addition of the STEM Center, securing and executing a nano grant dealing with LED technologies, and teaching robotics and robotic technology using Mindstorm Robotic League curriculum with the eighth grade, which placed first out of 30 teams at UND earlier this year."

"These kids are so fortunate. We didn't have any of this technology when I started teaching here," Anderson said.

While the middle school still has the typical tech-ed arsenal of traditional power tools, the department also is equipped with a room full of computers. With them, students can work on anything from the aforementioned robot program, to laying out newspaper pages via desktop publishing software, to testing stress capacities of model stick-built bridges.

It is that kind of versatility that not only has garnered awards, but also has caught everywhere from region- to nation-wide attention from institutes of higher learning.

Anderson said West Fargo's CTE program has worked with the North Dakota State College of Science in Wahpeton, as well as Valley City State University and New Mexico State University.

"It's just amazing how these college professors are chomping at the bit to try and get high school teachers into what they want, which is vocational training," he said.

With a downturn in the economy and no end in sight, the thought of racking up expensive student loans from pursuing a four-year degree is looking less and less appealing to new high school grads. And whereas jobs may be tougher to find in some fields, tech-savvy graduates from vocational schools such as NDSCS are getting picked up much more quickly.

"Academics is great, but (students) are starting to look more toward the technology-based two-year degrees and vocational degrees," Anderson said.

Plus, NDSCS boasted a 98-percent placement rate with its 2010 class of graduates; certainly something not lost on students who might be eager to get a jump into employment. And with a background from the cutting edge learning taking place in WFPS' technical education program, those students' futures are looking bright.

Not to mention, the program's award has put them on the map.

"What's nice about the award is that more people realize that West Fargo really has a good program," Anderson said. "There are a lot of parents and students who have no idea what we do here - until they see it. Then they eat it up."