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Maker

Harper Klaben operates a robot as her grandmother Brenda Aull-Klaben watches at Cayuga-Onondaga BOCES June 8.

Maybe BOCES would be more popular if they had a sports team. Football, anyone? Basketball? The BOCES Bisons?

What does BOCES mean, anyway? Well, it means board of cooperative education services. Yes, but what does that mean? Something to do with education, obviously. What is this institution that dares not say its name? It means vocational education, that’s what. But the word "vocational" makes many middle class families grab their kids and run for cover.

Years ago in my classroom, I saw academic middle school students making condescending remarks and denigrating gestures directed at BOCES students leaving campus for the BOCES facility. It was a “teachable moment,” but I was too stunned to take advantage of it. These academic-track students actually thought they were superior to their vocational classmates. Where did they get such attitudes, except from their parents?

Apparently, the V-word still conjures up images of trade school, assembly lines, dirty hands, corrupt labor unions, low pay and maybe even child labor. “Vocational” is something you don’t want for your child! However, the facility on the West Genesee Street Road in Aurelius is almost brand new and offers training in a striking variety of disciplines useful and even necessary for survival in the modern world.

Perhaps it is too bad that BOCES is a centralized facility taking students from nine local school districts. It separates vocational from academic tracks. Were the two tracks taught under the same roof, each group might get to know the other better. Academic kids might take a vocational course and acquire a different view of what a skill set is. The present arrangement is more economical, despite lengthy bus runs.

By coincidence, on the weekend of Saturday and Sunday, June 8 and 9, both The Citizen and The New York Times published articles on teaching robotics on the secondary level. Four photos in The Citizen showed students participating at the Maker Fair Robotics and Problem Solving Event at BOCES in Aurelius. The Times focused on similar work at not only Anna High School, about 50 miles north of Dayton in Ohio, but also in schools in Germany and Mexico, and speculated on the future of the field.

The Times article notes that “Robots could eliminate 75 million jobs globally by 2022, and create 133 million others,” and that “global manufacturers could also face a shortage of 7.9 million workers by 2030.” The opportunity is there, the article suggests. People are needed who can fix things. However, “because of negative perceptions about factory work, making it appealing is a global challenge,” according to Rob Luce, a manufacturing trade group representative. On the other hand, Amelie Haves, 14, in middle school near Bonn, Germany, said, “It isn’t that difficult to program a robot.” Isaac Dodds, 18, an Ohio student who plans to prepare for a teaching career at the University of Toledo, took a robot course to fall back on if teaching doesn’t work out. “Every job is going to involve robotics in some way or another,” he said.

Meanwhile, BOCES teaches more than robotics. Under the heading Career and Technical Education, it offers 19 programs, including computer systems and network administration, criminal justice, machining and welding, graphic design and modern media, automotive technology and applied electrical technology. And there’s an adult education program.

The computer option, a two-year program, is the one that would appeal to me, if I had the choice, with intriguing terms like motherboard architecture, ethical hacking, encryption and penetration testing. I would also be tempted by graphic design and criminal justice. Could I have completed one of these and been a computer techie or a detective? Or run heavy equipment? I’ll never know.

Parents naturally worry about low wages if their student enters some of these fields. Pay varies in different occupations in different parts of the country. Automobile mechanics seem to do much better in California and the Carolinas than they do here, so it’s a good idea to look around. Wages in many lines of work have risen recently, but there is still great economic imbalance in the country.

However, there is a psychological block to overcome. Society should recognize that there are different kinds of intelligence, and that each kind has its role to play in society. What would we do, after all, without people who can fix things? Or install things? There are valid choices for students who are more at home with specific things than the abstractions of academic education.

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Ed Rossmann lives in Aurora and has been an educator most of his life, including 17 years in high school. Biographies of Adlai Stevenson by Porter Mckeever and Bartlow Martin were useful in writing this essay, as was David Halberstam’s "The Fifties," and the New World Encyclopedia.

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