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Trades training ramps up in Terrace, B.C.

Intro to Trades students Brenden McClenaghan, 15, Ashley Curtis, 15, and Jordan Therrien, 15 at Northwest Community College earlier this year. - Anna Killen
Intro to Trades students Brenden McClenaghan, 15, Ashley Curtis, 15, and Jordan Therrien, 15 at Northwest Community College earlier this year.
— image credit: Anna Killen

For years, experts have been warning of an impending shortage of skilled workers as an older workforce prepares to retire.

In the northwest, however, the talk is of a shortage to meet the demands of large industrial projects either underway or in the planning stages.

This means that in Terrace, innovative trades training is a top priority for the Coast Mountains School District (CMSD) – a new trades liaison will act as a bridge between the district and industry, and, over the past few years, a laddered approach to preparatory trades training at the high school level has been taking shape.

Students are first introduced to trades in middle school and have various opportunities to get on board throughout their high school careers. But it’s the new Intro to Trades course – a program piloted this year as a partnership between CMSD and Northwest Community College (NWCC) and extended into the coming years – that’s being pointed to as a way for young students to really experience the trades.

The concept is fairly simple – take a cohort of students, give them a classroom at the college, and interchange blocks of academics with blocks of instruction in the various trades offered. The students are able to try out the trades – in a substantial, immersive way – and decide which one is right for them – or maybe find out that trades isn’t their thing at all. This way, they’re better able to plan out their last years of high school and they’ll be a step ahead of the game when it comes to post-secondary school.

The program, conceived by Brent Speidel, director of instruction for the Coast Mountains School District (CMSD), has two classes of 20 students alternating one week in the classroom with one week in the shop.

“It’s relatively new, and it’s being held as a model of best practice by the colleges and by the ministry in terms of trades training, so we’re excited about it, we’re proud of it,” he said.

Five other districts have similar programs and the Industrial Training Authority (ITA) is taking what was learned in those districts, as well as information from various stakeholders, to develop a Ministry of Education authorized course to be piloted next year – the ministry-authorized course should be designed to be flexible, meaning our district can choose to use their template, but keep things that worked well locally.

Speidel said part of the program is about building these students’ confidence in terms of how they think about post-secondary education and what they are capable of.

“Even if a number of those kids never take a trade in the future their confidence about being able to go up to NWCC in the future and take any course is huge because there’s no mystery there for them anymore,” he said. “How many kids that come out of high school and graduate are afraid of what’s next?”

Another aspect that excites him is seeing a different learning model in action in the classroom.

That’s the work of Intro to Trades instructor Tanya Corstanje, a passionate, veteran teacher who just finished her masters in education and is well-versed in the latest research and teaching techniques to motivate and engage kids. She is uniquely-suited to teach this program, tailored for kids who aren’t traditional learners. She came up with the basic structure of the program and has been tweaking it throughout the year.

“There’s a saying, ‘You build the boat as you sail it,” said Corstanje. “It’s been sailed.”

What happens in her classroom at the college is different that the traditional high school model. She has her students for six hours a day, as opposed to six hours a week. The curriculum she teaches – English, Socials, and Planning – is interwoven and overlapping. And, of course, because this is Intro to Trades, she uses trades to illustrate traditional concepts.

“I’m not all about the structure of the school, it’s a little more relaxed,” she said.  “It’s for kids that are somewhat disengaged, but in part that’s because they’ve only been shown, the focus, is only on academics. And even though I teach the academics, I show that it’s not a painful situation.”

The pace of the program is efficient – and Corstanje expects to see results.

“I get them for 40 days, each group, so you can’t go and teach fluff ... there’s no fooling around,” she said. “[I look at the curriculum and say,] ‘This is the most important thing for you to learn’ – and that’s what I teach. I boil it down.”

Students are taught how to think critically, problem solve, infer and ask questions. Learning how to be an effective communicator is also key. Corstanje reminds her students that the most successful tradespeople are the ones who know how to communicate, think on the fly, and explain. And self-assessment is a main feature of the program – with students tracking their own progress using guidelines they fully understand, which helps them “own their learning.”

“I don’t teach them stuff so much as I teach them skills so they can do the stuff,” she said. “I start with a skill that doesn’t require as deep of thinking, and then build on that... you don’t lose a skill as much as you might lose a concept.”

Some things in the program will change next year – most notably, more input from principals as to which students will be best suited to the program. And the district will be paying attention to last year’s students, seeing where they go and how they do – Corstanje says about half have already planned their timetables to stream into ACE-IT (a high school apprenticeship program) and will enter trades after graduation.

And while it’s too early to say if this learning approach could be applied to other areas – in terms of this group, the method appears to have fostered success.

“The results we got off the provincials were amazing,” said Corstanje, noting that at the beginning of the year, the majority of the students were assessed as “not yet meeting” in regards to writing skills. But the marks of the provincial exams at the end of the year had Corstanje “over the moon.”

On a six-point scale, “there were an abnormal amount of fives and sixes out of six,” she said. “It was way more than we’d expect out of a typical Grade 10 group, but this was an atypical group who walked into the class thinking they couldn’t write – turns out, they can write... Who knows, maybe this is the way to go?”

 

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