MARQUETTE -- Doug Elliott's class at Ishpeming's Westwood High School goes way beyond the focus of many a shop class: making wooden birdhouses, shelves and such.
Elliott’s students get into computer numerical control and sensors.
Entitled "Survival in an Electrical World," the class covers the basics and far more. An advanced class, for example, gets more into the heavy machinery that fills Elliott's spacious classroom.
"I try to bring out the exciting part of electricity and electronics," Elliott said.
Class lectures, according to Elliott, are 10-15 minutes long -- with the remainder of the two-hour sessions devoted to hands-on training. That training includes working on a real traffic light, for instance, with students -- as in the real world -- fixing it via a remote device. They also use computer numerical control (basically, the automated operation of a machine using a computer program) to run a lathe/mill machine.
And in a tiny makeshift "house," Elliott breaks things the students then have to fix, such as a burner or an electrical outlet.
"Sometimes the best way to find out about a device is to take it apart," he said.
Elliott said the students use test equipment to figure out the problem, again just as they would in the real world.
"I make this as real as I can," he said.
There are times, though, when students desire a project that’s a bit more on the spectacular side.
"They like things that explode," Elliott said, "and they like sparks."
Elliott said the electromechanical technology class began in the fall of 2007 with an empty 4,000-square-foot room. Local businesses and industries donated about 80 percent of the equipment that now fills the space.
The NICE (National Mine, Ishpeming Township, Champion-Humboldt-Spurr Townships, Ely Township) Community Schools program got off the ground with help from the Lake Superior Community Partnership, the Upper Peninsula Power Company (UPPCO) and Cleveland-Cliffs, Inc., with the goal of creating more skilled workers in the Upper Peninsula.
“For UPPCO, supporting and participating in the education and training of the young people in our communities has always been important to us,” said Keith Moyle, UPPCO vice president. “It’s an investment that pays dividends for all of us. The electrical program is an example that might even provide UPPCO with employees down the road. It’s a win-win situation.”
Westwood Principal David Boase said the school had just the proper facilities to conduct such a program.
"I don't think that you'd find a class of this much electrical depth at other high schools," Boase said. "It is a very specified course that often times other high schools have not been able to provide."
In fact, students from Ishpeming and Negaunee high schools are bused in for the program.
Students who maintain a B average or better can earn credits at Northern Michigan University in Marquette.
Elliott explained the electromechanical technology course used to have too many requirements, which the students couldn't fulfill in two years. So a new course, called "Electrical Installation and Repair," was created for a more attainable goal. However, as a marketing strategy and to attract more female students, the course was renamed (within the school) to "Survival in an Electrical World," which includes a segment on electrical repairs in and around the home, including major appliances.
Vocational courses have played a large role in the debate in Lansing over the Michigan Merit Curriculum and modifying state standards. In a series of community conversations the Center for Michigan held in the Upper Peninsula in 2012, teachers expressed strong support for a return to an emphasis on vocational ed.
Local business leaders also are on board with providing such in-depth vocational training.
Derek Bush, business development representative with the Lake Superior Community Partnership, said the Westwood program teaches critical thinking through practical means in a situation outside a typical classroom.
"By giving access and providing these skills, it gives them another skill set when they graduate high school," Bush said.
Nicholas Wunder, a senior at Westwood, agrees. "It'll help you out for your future," said Wunder, whose own father was an electrician.
Elliott said giving local students this type of advanced technical training can keep them in the Upper Peninsula. But there's a deeper goal as well.
"If they pursue this career to college, they have a head start and a few credits," he noted.
And if not, Elliott pointed out, they still have a greater understanding of the subject that Michigan relies upon every day.
Christie Bleck has worked for Michigan newspapers, such as the Lansing State Journal and Niles Daily Star, since the mid-1980s. She is now a freelance writer based in Marquette.