Future shop: high-tech transforms industrial arts

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

A YEAR ago, Kim Durfee's classroom at Butler Middle School in Salt Lake City was called a ``shop,'' and it housed traditional courses in metals and woodworking. Today, it's a Technology Lab 2000, a launching pad into the future where Mr. Durfee introduces enthusiastic students - girls as well as boys - to robotics, satellite communications, computer-aided design, and a host of other state-of-the-art technologies. The lab, the only one of its kind in Utah, will serve 600 seventh- and ninth-grade students each school year. Its $60,000 price tag - paid for in part by state and federal grant money - is one indication of Jordan School District's commitment to modernizing its vocational programs, and to preparing students to live and work in the 21st century.

According to Durfee, metal shop and wood shop are crumbling monuments of the old industrial arts program - developed in the 1920s and taught without substantial change throughout the country up to the present.

But today's kids live in the midst of advanced technologies. To survive in the future - and to help the United States survive as an economic power - they need technological literacy. This will allow them to seek opportunities to train and retrain for the multiple careers that will be typical of their adult lives. And it means that as citizens they'll be able to make informed decisions about matters like pollution, genetic engineering, and national computerized data banks.

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Familiarizing students with automation, or the computer control of processes, is a key objective of the curriculum that accompanies the lab. It is learned through a sequence of hands-on experiences. For example, students studying electronic devices set up and test control circuitry. They use modular building components to construct tabletop models of elevators, Ferris wheels, and traffic lights. Finally, they program and control these models with computers.

As many as 20 activities are going on in the lab at a given time. Students work in teams of two at work stations clustered to form ``islands'' of technological inquiry. ``While one group of students is engaged in activities related to robotics and computer-aided manufacturing,'' explains Durfee, ``another is experimenting with architectural design and building futuristic structures, like the kinds of geometric space frames proposed for NASA space stations. A third group might be designing model vehicles for aerodynamic testing - using a tabletop wind tunnel.''

The lab includes several miniature hydroponic greenhouses. In a separate room equipped with a video system, students produce their own TV programs. Apple II and Macintosh computers are distributed among the work stations.

Samantha Plumhof, a seventh-grader, comments, ``I've been doing many neat activities, and I used the Macintosh first. I think it is a neat computer, and it taught me new things. I also did robotics.''

The computers - as well as a laser printer, a plotter, and other printers - are linked through local-area network connections that drop through a power pylon at the center of each island of three work stations. The heartbeat of this system is in Durfee's adjacent office, where a computer feeds information and programs out into the lab.

Communication skills are continuously sharpened as students document and showcase their work, using both the video equipment and the desktop publishing capabilities of the lab.

Technology Lab 2000 is the product of TransTech Systems - a division of Creative Learning Systems Inc. of San Diego. TransTech stands for ``making technology transparent,'' the vision of James Durkin, its CEO-educator/entrepreneur.

Teacher Kim Durfee says, ``The future of this lab is wide open. That's what makes it so different from other facilities. If I need to reconfigure the islands to create a simulated assembly line, for example, I just untether the work stations and move them around. The kids aren't fazed by it; they're accustomed to change.''

Students, in fact, are much more involved and absorbed in their work than Durfee remembers their being in previous years. ``What appeals to kids is that they get to make practical applications of science and technology principles, right along with the usual reading and writing. They're finding out why they do what they do.''

In addition, Durfee says students know that the employment picture in Utah and the rest of the nation is changing. Some have parents who have been laid off, or they're aware of companies that have failed because they were using outmoded practices and couldn't keep up with the competition.

The students know Technology Lab 2000 is a model program for the state. They often express their personal views about the lab with an awareness of change. Rachel Jemmett, a ninth-grader, has completed half a semester in the lab. ``It's the best class I have ever taken. ... It made me think about what I want to do when I grow up. Last year I took the old shop course. The new lab is much more important to me.''

What does it take to transform a metal shop teacher into a ``facilitator'' of technological inquiry? According to Mr. Durkin the real learning happens every day, as the teacher, along with the students, progresses through the lab's instructional units.

Durfee's ``quantum leap,'' as he likes to call it, was encouraged and supported by his professional organization. The American Industrial Arts Association, which changed its name in 1985 to the International Technology Education Association, runs leadership seminars and conferences designed to help teachers push the profession to its rebirth.

``I was almost ready to quit teaching,'' Durfee remembers. ``Now I'm working harder and enjoying it more than ever before.''

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