Programs give students real world work experience in high school

Published: Monday, May 26 2014 12:40 a.m. MDT

The program connects students with volunteer mentors, all of whom have experience either in academia or industry. The mentors help the participants develop their projects as well as prepare formal presentations the teams make to their requestors.

Torch Elliott, a retired professor of civil engineering at the University of Utah, has mentored several teams thus far. He said the growth he has witnessed over the program’s first two semesters has been “huge.”

“The dress rehearsals we’re having now are much better than the final presentations given last term,” he said. “To get (teens) to be focused on being professional is wonderful. These kids are going to go to (college) and be the leaders.”

Park City-based environmental engineer Chris Cherniak said he became a volunteer mentor to the program to help the students develop communication and collaboration skills, which he said helps them gain the confidence they need to be successful.

“These are kids who are here because they want to be here,“ he said. “There has been a really impressive arc to their learning skills.”

The experience has been profoundly satisfying for students like Martin who said she has gained new perspective on what her educational and career options are for the future.

“I feel valuable here, which is huge for a teenager,” she said. “It’s brought out the adult part of me that I didn’t know I had.”

Martin’s team has worked on a robot that detects explosives and a solar electric power proposal that they will present to the Park City School Board in a few weeks.

She said that prior to entering the program, there was a time that she wasn’t sure if she wanted to go to college. Now she has been accepted to the University of Maryland where she wants to study mechanical engineering.

“It’s completely altered me as a person,” she said. “It’s brought out my maturity.”

While the program offers a new model that attempts to give students the opportunity to interact with mentors and businesses, it has similarities with programs run by other districts under the Career and Technical Education banner.

In 2005, the Granite School District opened the Granite Technical Institute in an effort to offer students expanded educational options, with classes in agriculture science, aviation, biotechnology, construction, cosmetology and barbering, culinary arts, health science, information technology, along with technology and engineering.

The program serves more than 2,000 students annually and allows them the chance to get hands-on experience in various career fields, said principal Devon Hartley.

“Our goal is to help kids find some kind of purpose, potential or pathway,” he said. “Some kids get here and may not be (high achievers), but because so many of the kids we have here are, our experience is that kids rise to the occasion.”

He said many students who may have struggled in traditional classroom environments flourish in a setting where they can use their minds and creativity in a more hands-on fashion.

“If we can help a kid — by the time he or she graduates — have an idea where they want to go in their lives, then that’s our mission,” Hartley said.

Seniors Mishana LeFevre (Hunter High) and Scott Croft (Skyline High) both said their time at the institute has been the highlight of their high school experience. LeFevre, who recently completed emergency management technician training, said being able to explore so many career alternatives helped her discover her calling.

“Until I started taking medical classes, I was good at things, but never really great at anything,” she said. “When I got into medical classes, everything clicked into place and I found my passion — the reason I get up in the morning. You can do extraordinary things if you put your mind to it.”

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