Faced with the challenge of designing a program that would bring current business issues into the high school classroom, a team of EDC curriculum writers and researchers began their work in an assembly plant. During tours of the Ford Motor Company’s engine and assembly plants in Michigan, the EDC team gained insight into the kinds of details that drive modern manufacturing—digital displays that give assembly workers the ability to track production levels by the minute; the way cars are positioned on the line to minimize eye and back strain among workers; a system that traps methane gas from the town dump and then uses it as fuel to power the assembly plant.
“Many people believe that industrial jobs demand a lot of physical strength and ability to withstand harsh working conditions, but, in fact, most industrial jobs are highly technical and require much math and science background, knowledge of environmental policy, and international relations,” explains Karen Hlynsky, project director of the high school program called the Ford Partnership for Advanced Studies (Ford PAS). “The tours at Ford were a great way to educate the writers about the reality of industry in the 21st century.”
Now, the EDC team, in collaboration with Ford, is bringing that knowledge back to a network of high schools around the country. Ford PAS is a standards-based high school curriculum for college-bound students interested in careers in business, engineering, and technology. Its three core elements are academic knowledge, business concepts, and interpersonal and human performance skills. Beginning in tenth grade, students in Ford PAS take a sequence of five interdisciplinary elective courses (see box to the right) in which they apply academic knowledge in real-world business contexts, while developing critical-thinking, problem-solving, communication, and teamwork skills.
Ford PAS addresses many topics that aren’t generally addressed in traditional curricula, but which are important to business today, such as developing environmentally sustainable business practices, using data to make effective business decisions, and making the most efficient use of resources. “Despite their importance in business, these topics haven’t yet found a place in most high school courses,” explains Hlynsky. “These are the issues that students will have to address when they are in business careers.”
Ford has played a key role in the development of the curriculum. “We’ve relied on the expertise of engineers, policy makers, economists, and product designers at Ford,” says Hlynsky. “They’ve provided a window into real-life challenges that industry faces related to efficient use of resources and time, keeping competitive, working in a globalized economy, and responding to environmental issues.”
Activities in the Ford PAS curriculum are project-based, allowing students to experience how problems actually are solved in the workplace. For example, rather than read about how a soft drink company decides what type of container to use for its new line of beverages, students dig into financial, consumer, and environmental impact information, and they apply this information to make decisions that will be profitable as well as environmentally sound. During this simulation, students must also use interpersonal skills. “The way they work in class is very much like the way people work in real jobs,” says Hlynsky. “They use important skills like working in teams, facilitating group work, presenting the results of their work to an audience, and receiving feedback and making adjustments.”
The mix of rigorous academic content and interpersonal skills in a real-world context makes Ford PAS unique in preparing students for the workplace of the 21st century. “In the workplace, you can’t just think about reading or writing or solving a mathematical equation. You have to be nimble, to move back and forth between understanding deep content and producing outcomes in a time-sensitive setting,” says EDC Senior Vice President Vivian Guilfoy. “You need to ‘do your homework’ so that you can generate solutions that work. Your strategies won’t work if your knowledge of people, ideas, and systems is superficial.”
Teacher Donna Gilley sees this process in action. “Ford PAS exposes students to real-world issues. They put academic skills to work in the classroom by solving problems they might encounter in the business world and in life.” According to Gilley, a business and technology teacher at Glencliff High School in Nashville, Tennessee, what students like most about Ford PAS is that they can work together to solve problems, although they get frustrated because it isn’t like the traditional class in which there’s a clear answer to a problem. “With Ford PAS, all the answers are not in a book. There’s a lot of grey area. Students need to work together and think critically to problem-solve. What they learn in a Ford PAS course will stay with them longer.”
Ford PAS courses are intended to accompany a strong academic program. “Ford PAS reinforces and extends academic knowledge, showing students how the knowledge they gain has real-world applications,” says EDC Center Director Ilene Kantrov. “Unlike traditional career academies, which prepare students for particular careers, Ford PAS helps students see the link between academic content and college and a broad array of careers.”
The final thread of Ford PAS is collaboration among schools, higher education, and industry. “Through collaboration with universities and businesses in the community, students have opportunities for job shadowing and mentoring. These real-world experiences enable them to see how what they learn in school applies to their future,” says Kantrov. “With Ford PAS, the community becomes as much a classroom as the actual school building,” adds Guilfoy. “The creation of knowledge comes not just through teachers, but workers, people who have lived in the community, and families. Ford PAS asks students to share what they’re learning in real settings with key individuals in school, higher education, and business. Sharing their work makes students accountable for what they’re learning.”
EDC is developing the curriculum materials for Ford PAS, including teacher guides, student guides, and a Web site of resources for teachers, students, and community partners. The Web site also offers opportunities for a range of connections—student to student, teacher to teacher, and teachers to business, industry, and higher education. EDC provides technical assistance for teachers via e-mail and a toll-free telephone number. “It’s rare for anyone to develop a curriculum and community partnerships as well as provide ongoing technical assistance for a continuous learning path,” says Guilfoy. “The Ford PAS technical assistance component allows us to track features of the program that could be improved, and it provides educators with real-time connections to our partners as well as the curriculum development team. It’s helping us to build a powerful learning community.”
Originally published on June 1, 2003