BRUNSWICK — The smell of chocolate chip cookies wafted through the air at the Region 10 Technical High School on a recent morning as a dozen adolescent students worked on perfecting a new recipe using math skills they had learned that morning.

A short distance away an instructor was showing two boys how to polish headlights, remove windshields and practice plastic welding on old cars in the auto collision repair shop. Nearby, sparks flew as another student worked on a metal welding project.

The flurry of activity isn’t unusual at the school, where programs such as culinary arts, emergency medicine and building trades routinely keep students engaged in hands-on activities. This summer, however, things look a little different as the school has brought in middle school students – rather than the high school juniors and seniors they typically serve – for a two-week summer camp.

Culinary Arts instructor Tim Dean works with Monique Palaba, left, and Lisi Palmer during a career & technical education summer camp at Region 10 Technical High School. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

The camp comes amid efforts by career and technical schools statewide to engage middle school students following a 2017 law that encourages schools to expand career and technical education, or CTE, to younger students.

Four years later, 21 of the state’s 27 CTE schools are piloting some kind of middle school program, including in-school programs, online career exploration and mentorships. Region 10 in Brunswick is among nine schools hosting new summer camps this year specifically aimed at bringing career and technical education to middle school students.

“It’s an opportunity to give them that exposure at a much earlier age,” said Dwight Littlefield, state director for career and technical education at the Maine Department of Education. “It helps them with their career path or career options as they’re thinking about what they want to do. It gets them into the CTE schools so they’re able to see what they are and how they function, and they really get that hands-on component.”

The 2017 law to expand CTE into middle schools came with three years of funding for pilot programs at $500,000 per year to be used at schools across the state. Because of delays caused by the coronavirus pandemic, the state is expecting to use up the last of the funding in the coming school year but will look to the Legislature for ways to continue middle school CTE programming going forward.

Sean Glass, who will be a freshman in the fall at Brunswick High School, clears fogged headlight covers on a vehicle last week during the technical education summer camp at Region 10 Technical High School. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

“That will be one of our big missions over the next year – looking for ways to continue this and continue the momentum,” Littlefield said. “I think folks have really latched on to this and it’s become part of the experience within their schools. I think there’s a lot of support both from the CTE schools and the districts that are seeing this work.”

Career and technical education schools are centers for hands-on, technical education and career-focused programs. There are 27 schools around the state, each of which serves students from multiple districts in programs such as early childhood education, cybersecurity and woodworking.

The schools typically enroll mostly juniors and seniors in high school although in recent years there have been efforts to involve younger students, especially as middle schools have gotten away from offering their own industrial arts classes due to budget constraints and as more emphasis has been placed on college preparation and four-year degrees.

“Over the years the districts have gotten away from the traditional industrial arts programs that existed in middle schools in the past where students could get some experience and find out if they had an aptitude or an interest,” said Kevin Stilphen, director of the Portland Arts & Technology High School, or PATHS, which serves students from 12 districts in the Portland area. “That’s a big missing piece. It is a missing component of students’ education in the middle schools, so the state decided to try and come up with a way to give access to middle school students.”

PATHS is one of the career and technical education schools that used the state funding for pilot programs this summer to offer two weeks of camp for middle school students as an introduction to CTE. Over two weeks students spent time in the music, dance, culinary and other programs. By the end they had produced a finished product such as an edited video in the new media program or sawhorses built in the carpentry program.

Aidan Gonzalez, who will be a freshman in the fall at Brunswick High School, sands the back bumper of a vehicle during a career & technical education summer camp at Region 10 Technical High School. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

“We’ve already gotten the emails from parents saying, ‘Thank you for doing this. I haven’t seen my son or daughter this excited about something in a school setting in a while,'” Stilphen said. “So we’re certainly hoping the students come back to us, but also that they leave with an understanding of what PATHS is.”

Many CTE schools around the state have traditionally offered exploratory opportunities for middle school students, such as a full, single day when they can come and see what the programs offer. At Sanford Regional Technical Center, director Kathy Sargent said the center typically brings in eighth-graders from the eight districts it serves for an introduction to its programs. This year they also offered two weeks of summer camp for sixth- through eighth-graders that was met with high interest.

“I definitely think there’s a need for younger students to understand their career options, not just CTE but just in general to understand,” Sargent said. “It’s very engaging for young people to think about their future and what careers may lie ahead for them. It’s all a matter of priority and how much we can fit into the year. The past couple of years have been really challenging for all education staff and trying to fit it all in is tough.”

In Region 10, the school has used the state pilot funding for in-depth school year immersion experiences where middle schools could send a select number of students to the school for half-days to spend a week or two in a given program. The school, which serves students from the Brunswick, Freeport and Mt. Ararat districts as well as Harpswell Coastal Academy, also is planning to buy a trailer that could travel to different middle schools in those districts to introduce students to various CTE programs.

A student at work last week at the technical education summer camp at Region 10 Technical High School in Brunswick. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

“I think it’s important Maine schools in general are looking at all of the opportunities and are matching student aspirations and abilities with all of the pathways that are available,” said John Stivers, the assistant director at Region 10. “CTE represents a wide range of pathways. We know that not all the students who take our welding program are going to be welders. Some will go to engineering school. Some will get into different areas of manufacturing.”

Educators also see a benefit to expanded CTE opportunities for students while they are still in secondary school. Conan McNamara, an alternative education teacher at Brunswick Junior High School, specifically sought out a partnership with Region 10 this summer as a way to counter the impacts of COVID-19 and remote learning. The camp that’s currently running for Brunswick students isn’t being paid for with the state pilot funding, though it shares some of the same goals as the state program.

“We were looking for something to help the students who were disengaged this year,” McNamara said. “I wanted to do (the camp at the tech school) because I think a lot of the students that had the hardest time engaging were the ones who are hands-on learners, who do better by seeing and doing and being active in those things. That can translate to a hard time at home or getting instruction online.”

In the kitchen at Region 10 on a recent morning, a dozen students in red chef coats crowded around their instructor, Tim Dean, as he walked them through the steps for making chocolate chip cookies. Earlier in the day the students had learned about the units of measurement used in cooking and how to calculate the cost of a meal at a restaurant given the prices of the ingredients they would need.

Abby Reed, an incoming freshman at Brunswick High School, said she was having a lot of fun despite initially not wanting to participate. Reed struggled last year with school during hybrid and remote learning and her mother insisted that signing up for the summer camp at the tech school would be good for her.

“I didn’t want to be in school in the summer,” said Reed, 14. “She told me it would be good for me to do it and that it would help me have a fresh start for next year, so that’s what I’m hoping.”

By the time the first batch of cookies was about ready to come out of the oven, things were already looking up. “It’s super fun,” Reed said. “I like the people here. I’m not a people person, so I stick with a very select group of people, but I like the people here. They’re super nice and the chef is super fun.”

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