“When will I ever use this?” A new look at contextualized learning

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Will I ever use this in a future career? Here is a look at innovative math instruction for all ages that exposes students to high-wage, in-demand careers.

At some point in every student’s life, the question is asked, “when will this ever be useful?” The Bay Area Water/Wastewater Workforce Development Collaborative (BAYWORK) has found an answer to that very question, by creating engaging methods to pique students’ interest in math and exposing them to exciting careers.

A consortium of Bay Area water and wastewater treatment utilities, BAYWORK is leveraging its resources to recruit employees into high-demand fields. There is a wide range of employment opportunities within these companies and they struggle to fill them – from wastewater treatment operator to electrical technician.

California Community Colleges, specifically the Electrical & Instrumentation Technology (ETEC) and Process Technology (PTEC) programs at Los Medanos College (LMC), prepare prospective employees for these positions. The jobs and trainings are easily accessible, but many don’t know about these opportunities and some don’t have the math skills to pursue them.

That isn’t discouraging these utilities, though. Together as BAYWORK, employers such as SFPUC, EBMUD, and others are creating projects that expose, interest, and prepare students of all ages for working within their industry. One of these projects is the “Contextualized Learning Project,” in which math curriculum has been designed to reflect the utilities field.  Videos feature LMC alumni who now work for these companies. They entertain and engage students by making the math activities real. These videos present problems for the class to solve, showing students how they could actually use the math in real careers.

“I have done many presentations in high schools, and it has been painful to see the denial and bravado that students use to hide the fact that they have no idea how they are going to make a living in the world. We are not doing enough to build real bridges between the classroom and industry that students can see and walk over. The purpose of the ‘Contextualized Learning Project’ is to show students that the very skills their teachers are trying to teach them today could be their bridge to a useful, high-paying skilled trades job that will benefit not only them but society and the environment,” says Cheryl Davis, previous Chair of BAYWORK, now principal of CKD Consulting.

There is a major gap in the skilled labor workforce, where wages are competitive, but math is a must. “…BAYWORK is concerned about this gap; we need a reliable pipeline of qualified candidates who have the skills and credentials needed to do quality work.  Additionally, we would prefer for these to be individuals from our communities, to help our youth get good jobs,” says Davis.

Both Los Medanos College and BAYWORK are very excited about this project, and look forward to its piloting. One module is already complete, with others already in production. The current Chair of BAYWORK, Ingrid Bella, commented that “BAYWORK has created a partnership with Los Medanos College, to build water and wastewater-specific contextualized learning for high schools and community colleges. We know that if students can see the connection between the math and communication skills they are learning now, and real-life scenarios, there is a better chance they will want to learn more about the careers that this knowledge can lead to.”

For more information on these programs at Los Medanos College, visit www. losmedanos.edu, and for more information on BAYWORK and career opportunities, visit www.baywork.org.

– Tara Sanders

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