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The room smelled like a lumber yard and looked like a junk yard.
At Gateway Regional High School, Chris Anderson was getting a tour as a potential new design and technology teacher. He was fresh out of the College of New Jersey at the time, bursting with ideas about how to subvert the system. But he started to reconsider his career path when he stood in the door, staring at what would be his classroom:
The walls were lima bean green and mellow yellow; there were old green lockers and weathered maple butcher-block style tabletops; and perched on the tables and stuffed in cabinets were machines. Not the kind you find at Home Depot, he said. But massive monster machines, such as a table saw that weighed 2,000 pounds with a 14-horsepower motor.
"If you get behind those things and you don't know what you're doing," Anderson said, "somebody can fall back and they'll cut your head off."
Intimidated, Anderson was ready to turn down the job. But standing next to him, his future supervisor said, "I think this place is a gem in the rough. You could turn this space into anything you want."
Indeed, he did. In the following weeks, Anderson filled three 30-yard dumpsters with garbage and moved the equipment to the room’s perimeter. He painted all the walls white and hung bright posters. He made the room his own. That was all in the summer of 2002.
Since then, Anderson has used that same energy to transform the world of technical education in New Jersey. In a class that combines sustainable practices and STEM subjects, students in grades seven to 12 work to solve real environmental problems. His goal is to get kids to learn not only how stuff works, but also how it impacts everyday life.
“If you're a kid, you're on MySpace and you're watching ‘The Hills’ and sending text messages 400 times a day,” Anderson said. “When do you have time to look around and understand how the rest of the world is operating?”
Ed tech and tech ed may look the same on paper, but in practice, they’re vastly different academic concepts.
Ed tech, short for education technology, relates to any technology that assists in the learning process such as smartphones, interactive whiteboards, laptops, projectors, etc.
Tech ed, short for technology education, deals with the existence of technology and how it effects society. The goal in tech ed is for students to develop technological literacy by using tools and techniques in laboratory experiments.
Tech ed has its roots in the industrial arts days, when people studied specific trades. But now, instead of just focusing on one subject, tech ed classes may combine architecture, transportation, electronics, robotics, computer-assisted design and computer-assisted manufacturing, and pre-engineering. Each design challenge requires students to use their knowledge and skills from each of the areas.
Two years after Anderson started teaching, Gateway Regional hit the jackpot.
The school was selected to receive a bond referendum, where the state government would pay for renovations if taxpayers agreed to match the money. In the end, Anderson said, the school received at least $50,000.
He got new equipment, replaced the lighting and plumbing. He traded in the bulky machines for smaller desktop versions and sold some of the old stuff to Amish Mennonites in the area.
Anderson turned an adjacent room into a clean lab, where students could work with computer-assisted design software. He bought a computer that prints plastic 3-D models of their digital designs.
Enrollment skyrocketed. Anderson brought in one of his best friends, and together they began teaching a total of 12 classes a day with 22 to 24 students in each class. Now Anderson teaches about gear ratios, aerodynamics and the physics of a circuit. His students have to keep electronic portfolios and outline their design process and hypotheses.
For projects, the students create devices that conserve energy such as wind-powered generators and solar-powered USB chargers, actual models that can be used in real life. For another activity, they build 2-foot long Styrofoam boats, which are propelled through a 30-foot trough by the potential energy of a rat-trap spring.
Many of these problem-based projects have more than one way to solve them, but he allows students to figure it out for themselves. He grades them on the process.
“A lot of teachers are scared to give students equipment unless it has directions,” he said. “All this creativity gets lost after kindergarten.”
Anderson's personal favorite project is his aquaponic/hydroponic experiment, where students raise fish in a 1,000-gallon tank and turn the waste into nitrogen for plants. They grow romaine lettuce, collard greens, broccoli and tomatoes in the classroom, without having to worry about pesticides or herbicides. This activity represents the best of tech ed, he said, because students can apply what they learn in class in the real world.
“Now when they go to the grocery store,” he said, “they ask, ‘How did they grow that lettuce? Are there chemicals on it?’”
Anderson said he aims to raise awareness for tech ed by sharing his successes. He has a blog and a YouTube channel, and he writes curriculum for colleges and collaborates with other schools via phone conferencing. As the new president of the New Jersey Technology Education Association, he also plays a major role in pushing legislation to expand tech ed.
And Anderson still has ideas for his room: He wants to one day have a fully sustainable aquaponics system and a classroom fully powered by solar energy and wind power.
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