From home ec to votech: the hands-on skills we miss
To Home Ec pioneers, the topic was considered a science, and far more respectable than the eye-roll it gets in the tech age. And yet, we head scratch at college students’ inability to do laundry, young graduates unable to cook for themselves and that nearly no young adults grasp the concept of budget or credit card interest rates.
Home Ec’s demise leaves a gap in common sense skills
Home ec used to get young people ready for the “real world” and a home they might one day own an run. Typically an all-girls class, students learned cooking basics, budgeting, and more essential skills of homemaking. But its history is much more progressive than that. The creation of home ec is often attributed to Ellen Swallow Richards, a chemist and instructor at MIT, who paved the way for MIT’s Women’s Laboratory, which existed from 1876 to 1883 with a goal of advancing the scientific education of women at the Institution. In a time when educating women in traditional science classes was taboo, molecular gastronomy of food prep and the chemistry of stain removal seems a brilliant hack for early girls STEM education. Many young women went on not to tend to children and dinner, but to their own careers inspired by what they learned in home ec classes.
Home Ec in the tech age
Today, while home economics courses occasionally pop up in high schools, the language has changed. Instead of home ec, it’s usually called something like “Family And Consumer Sciences.” Even Richards’ American Home Economics Association has been renamed the American Association of Family & Consumer Sciences. While home ec’s founders would love the “science” part of that title, they might wonder where the “home” went.
So what now?
“Consumer Science” on its own has broader appeal than throwing “Family” into the mix. “Family” sounds like we’re back in the “practice baby” days.
Timing matters, too.
A high school kid can handle learning how to make grilled cheese. But the student likely won’t remember the in-depth lecture about interest rates, mainly because that’s probably not part of his or her world yet. But in college, with student loan debts averaging in the high $20,000s, it’s a great time to learn things like budgeting and basic business etiquette. Work in the “core” home ec classes from there: Managing laundry, meal planning and cooking.
Don’t make it part of the formal curriculum.
Instead, treat it as informally as freshmen orientation.
Change your attitude.
The sooner we can accept that Home Ec isn’t just for women, the sooner we can have students who have to attain stronger life skills.
Vo-Tech’s evolution: Career and Technical Education
Another oft-maligned program is seeing a resurgence in American high schools. Career and Technical Education offers training that is both in high demand and incredibly versatile. Many programs offer an early college credit option, similar to AP classes, but more hands on. Still, not every student will want to pursue college, and solid CTE training regularly sees students in well-paying jobs or apprenticeships right after graduation. One of the strongest programs in Northeast Ohio is at Cleveland Heights-University Heights. Maximizing the sharing economy popular in education, Heights is the CTE consortium hub for 5 districts offering traditional tech training as well as college credit, from biotech to finance.
Given the accelerated goals of both AP and CTE classes, it was just a matter of a time before the two were combined into a completely new, and uniquely effective program. CTE still faces some bias from both parents and schools, so it’s indicative of the strength of CTE skills that a wealthy district with a 90% college attendance rate is integrating CTE modalities into their AP classes.
When AP meets CTE
“AP classes are usually reading a textbook and memorizing a lot of things,” said Christine Lee, a 17-year-old junior. “With forensics, we get to do a lot of lab work, gaining experience and skills that prepare us more for future careers.”
“When these kids go off to college there have been lots of studies that say they’re not prepared with the communication, critical thinking and collaboration skills they need,” said Denise Pope, a senior lecturer at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education and a co-founder of Challenge Success, a nonprofit education advocacy group. “Learning by doing is more effective in the long term to produce mastery, but that’s not what happens in a traditional AP class.”
“If you really want to … be an attractive employee you need a mix of book learning and real-world experience,” said Russell T. Warne, an associate psychology professor at U
tah Valley University who has studied the impact of AP courses on academic achievement. “Kids who want a technical education can benefit from AP and the college-bound kids who already have five AP classes can benefit from the career education. They are not mutually exclusive.”
Check out this resource on which vocational degrees pay off (below). Spoiler: healthcare leads the pack.
Bring hands-on learning back to your classroom
Check out these titles from cooking, finance, coding and entrepreneurship and encourage your students to get their hands dirty.
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