How Can Wisconsin Schools Prepare For Foxconn, Other Jobs of the Future?

Sep 21, 2017

Today’s education and business communities talk a lot about “jobs of the future.” What are those jobs? And how are kids being prepared for them?

'Jobs of the future'

Educators commonly promote the cause of “preparing kids for jobs that don’t even exist yet.” But what does that mean?

In Wisconsin, we now have a better idea where employees coming up in the next few decades might find some of those jobs.  

The manufacturing giant Foxconn announced plans this summer to open its first U.S. facility right here in southeastern Wisconsin, and leaders involved in making that deal, say it could create more than 13,000 jobs in the region.

But what those jobs will look like exactly is yet to be determined. So school leaders are rolling up their sleeves.

"Efficient applying of workers...has to do with understanding what the employers need."

Morna Foy, president of the Wisconsin Technical College System, addressed Foxconn at a legislative committee hearing back in August. She told lawmakers that she and a lot of her colleagues are excited about the potential opportunities the Taiwanese electronics manufacturer will present for her students – namely, employment.

And, she added, it’s up to schools to arm students with whatever skills they might need to land those coveted jobs, whatever they may be.

“What we hang our hats on is placing individuals that live in this state in great jobs,” Foy said. “Efficient applying of workers and skilled talent has to do with understanding what the employers need, and understanding what our students and our residents of the state need to get there.”

Rethink teaching to shape learning
Credit Rachel Morello

That kind of preparation is not just a job for higher ed. In recent years, some K-12 schools have started rethinking how they teach kids skills that will one day translate into a college major and later, a career -- regardless of whether that degree, or that job title, exists yet.

At Milwaukee Jewish Day School, or MJDS, a small, private school on the city's north side, staff have begun collaborating in a new physical space called the “Innovation Hub.”

This wing is comprised of three rooms: a tile-floored space boasting hammers, nails and other tools (the “Makerspace”), a suite across the hall filled with 3D printing equipment (the Engineering room), and an adjoining space called the “Ideation room.”

Welcome to the "Ideation room."
Credit Rachel Morello

It’s there you’ll find two dry-erase wall borders, a SmartBoard and a yellow corkboard with student art scattered about. Today, a rambunctious group of first grade students piles into the space. A variety of chairs and cushions are scattered around the edges, but most of the kids opt to sit on their hands and knees on the floor, so they can be closer to the action.

MJDS first graders watch to see if they correctly programmed their robot.
Credit Rachel Morello

The five- and six-year-olds are programming motorized robots -- six-inch, clear plastic ladybugs with wheels on the bottom, and buttons on top the kids can press to program every move. The goal: to correctly direct the robot from point A to point B on a game board the teachers have drawn using good old-fashioned paper and marker.

A pair of boys punches buttons to direct their robot to the right, the left, forward and backward. They program the last few moves and let the robot run its course…

“It’s going to work…” says one boy, tentatively, as the bug crawls its way toward the finish marker.

The small machine rolls slowly to a stop, right atop the intended target, and beeps three times.  

“Yay! It worked!” the duo shouts, received by a smile and a clap from their teacher, Courtney Clyde.

MJDS Innovation Facilitator Courtney Clyde works with a group of first graders in the Ideation Room.
Credit Rachel Morello

Clyde is one of two instructors in charge in this wing at MJDS. She has the totally awesome title of “innovation facilitator,” and says her goal with every class is getting the kids to practice self-direction through hands-on learning.

“Even though we don’t necessarily know what the jobs look like, they’ll be able to take that knowledge and transfer it into whatever that job looks like,” Clyde explains.

"Be a facilitator of a student's learning, as opposed to the gatekeeper of knowledge."

The Innovation Hub setup was made possible with philanthropic dollars. But MJDS’ head of school Aaron Lippman says the kind of learning happening here is possible without all the bells and whistles.

“Having the space created is a luxury, but that’s not necessarily what’s making the difference,” he explains. “It’s the way our teachers are thinking about learning with kids.”

“As opposed to saying, ‘Here’s the textbook, here’s the information, you have to learn it this way,’ be a facilitator of a student’s learning, as opposed to the gatekeeper of knowledge,” Lippman continues. “Let’s get students to decide what problem they want to tackle, [and] what they want to do to solve that problem.”

Lippman says the classroom is shifting to meet what we’re expecting the kids to need, as they grow up – skills like problem-solving, and collaboration that will be applicable regardless of the kind of job they get in the future.

"Sitting in rows of desks in your English class does't necessarily get you there."

“Sitting in rows of desks in your English class doesn’t necessarily get you there,” he says. “But trying to solve a program like, ‘How do I program a robot when I’m five and do that with two other five-year-olds?’ is a lot more engaging than sitting there and practicing drawing my letters.”

That first grade class working with their robots is a little young to really know what they want to do when they grow up. And who knows – their options may look completely different by the time they need to make those decisions.

In the meantime, they can build up the skills they’ll need for any potential future career  -- and have fun doing it.

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Pieces of this audio were provided courtesy of WisconsinEye.