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Choosing destiny: Grand Forks Public Schools uses electives to create pathways for careers

Red River High School student Millie Schwartz tests automatic straightening on a robotic vehicle in Joseph Ostgarden's robotics class. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

It took Grand Forks Red River High School sophomore Chase Eagan and his classmates about a week to program a small, clawed, four-wheeled robot to correct itself if it strayed from its path as it traveled down the school's hallway.

Some of the autonomous vehicles performed the task almost perfectly, while others needed a little tweaking for a job that required a lot of coding.

But the coding and building is part of the reason Eagan chose the elective class as part of his curriculum.

"I've always really enjoyed building robots," he said.

Last semester was the first time Red River offered a robotics class, teacher Joseph Ostgarden said. It also is offered at Grand Forks Central High School.

Robotics is one of dozens of electives Grand Forks Public Schools offers to high schoolers. Student in high school must take a minimum of 24 credits to graduate, but they must choose at least 8.5 credits of electives, according to a 2018-19 course description book detailing the district's curriculum.

Electives include but are not limited to classes in foreign language, film study, journalism, history, shop courses, cooking and guitar. A person can even be a library assistant and use that as a half-credit elective.

The School Board voted this fall to add introduction to computing essentials as well as interior design, a class focused on learning "the elements required to create an attractive and functional living space," according to a course description. Students also will learn about budgeting aspects in the course.

Multiple factors play a role in deciding what classes schools should offer, said Eric Ripley, executive director of career and technical education for the district. For example, do the classes teach skills that could prep them for employment in local industries; do they meet accreditation standards and suggestions; does the district have the equipment necessary to teach the classes; and will the course attract students.

"They're all of electives. Kids don't have to take them," Ripley said. "You could have the best facility with the best equipment and the best-trained teacher in the world, but if the kids aren't interested in taking the course, it's really a moot point."

Some classes are eliminated from the course load due to a lack of interest. That was the case for early childhood education, which the School Board voted last year to eliminate. Red River had not had that class since 2006, and Central offered it sporadically over the past decade, according to a memo from District Assistant Superintendent Catherine Gillach.

Other classes, including child development and junior educators of tomorrow, teach similar aspects that would have been studied in the early childhood education class, Gillach wrote.

Providing pathways to careers

Staff members will bring ideas for classes to administration before a committee determines which classes will fit into the curriculum, Central Principal Marlon "Buck" Kasowski said. He agreed offering classes depends in part on student interest.

"This year, the new class that's probably been the most popular is guitar," he said. "We have never had a guitar class before, and now we have a guitar class at both Red River and Central."

Medical-related classes attract a large amount of interest, Kasowski said, adding the school has had to turn students away because the courses fill up fast.

Kasowski said robotics also is growing in popularity. The Central class had about 30 students last semester. Red River only had six student last fall, but Ostgarden said he expects his class to grow.

The electives are meant to expose students to different topics that could lead them on a pathway to potential careers, Ripley said, but many classes teach skills that can transfer to any job.

"If they don't choose a pathway in interior design, there is still a benefit for taking that class," he said.

The robotics class involves problem-solving, and the programming used in the class is used in the autonomous vehicle industry, Ostgarden said. Students learn skills they can use not only in the robotics industry but for life in general, he said.

"A lot of it is the perseverance because we hit a lot of roadblocks," he said. "You have to hit that roadblock and say, 'OK, I can figure this out. I can keep going.'"

The school does a good job at offering a variety of electives that interest students, Eagan said.

"I personally chose this one because I really enjoy it," he said. "There are some other ones out there that are really cool, too, but this one by far stood out the most."

Eagan said he believes he will use the skills he has learned in the robotics class after he graduates high school.

"I'm not really sure for what yet," he said.

April Baumgarten

April Baumgarten joined the Grand Forks Herald May 19, 2015, and covers crime and education. She grew up on a ranch 10 miles southeast of Belfield, where her family raises registered Hereford cattle. She double majored in communications and history/political science at Jamestown (N.D.) College, now known as University of Jamestown. During her time at the college, she worked as a reporter and editor-in-chief for the university's newspaper, The Collegian. Baumgarten previously worked for The Dickinson Press as a city government and energy reporter in 2011 before becoming the editor of the Hazen Star and Center Republican. She then returned to The Press as a news editor, where she helped lead an award-winning newsroom in recording the historical oil boom.

Have a story idea? Contact Baumgarten at 701-780-1248.

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