Pathways to a New Way of Learning and a New Way of Teaching




Just as the industrial revolution vastly changed the way the world worked almost a century ago, the technological revolution has already begun to transform the way the world d'es business today. As technology rapidly advances, it is the educator's obligation to properly prepare students for the new working world. Photoshop, color scanners, connective video cameras and e-mail are just some of the tools of the next millennium. These are the tools to which the Pathways students at Passaic Valley High School in Little Falls, New Jersey are being exposed.

Pathways Objectives and Inception

Roughly 110 ninth and tenth grade students at Passaic Valley High School first got involved with the Pathways program at the beginning of the l997-l998 school year. The school was chosen as one of only eight sites on the East Coast of the United States.

The classroom where students participate in the Pathways program is a room that had been used for industrial arts classes. The Pathways lab was constructed to accommodate 24 students at a time in a setting similar to that of an office. The students use computers and other technology provided by Pitsco, Inc. The equipment cost $125,000, which will be paid by the school during a three-year period.

The Pathways program is the next step in the technology education program started by Pitsco in 1989, when the Kansas-based company introduced Synergistic Systems, a radical educational curriculum design. Pathways was designed bearing in mind the information set forth in the SCANS (Secretary's Commission On Achieving Necessary Skills) report, the Labor Department's 1991 dictum about the skills and career competencies that every student should possess.

The SCANS report dictated that students should: have a positive self image and be aware of how their behavior affects others; interact well with people and develop group membership skills; be able to identify and express their feelings; and be aware of the relationship between work and learning. The Pathways program fully supports these ideas, and Pathways students are using the latest technology to meet the criteria set in the report.

Fulfilling its commitment to support the ideas in the SCANS report, the program provides an environment in which students can take a proactive position in their own education, learning to overcome challenges through teamwork. Each team needs bits and pieces of what other teams are doing to successfully complete their mission.

After going through the Pathways program, students should be able to:

  • Discover how curriculum and behavior are relevant to successful careers
  • Get along with and work well with others
  • Communicate clearly and effectively lead healthy lives


The Pathways Classroom

The Pathways program calls for 24 students to be divided into teams of six and to work on specific tasks in groups of two. The six-student teams work in an area called a suite. The structure of the suite -- triangular -- facilitates team dynamics, as the team members build on each other's ideas, sharing their knowledge and experiences.

The suites provide safe environments for solving problems, testing solutions and presenting results. At each point of the triangular suite lies a harbor (also triangular), where two students work on a computer and other technological hardware according to their duties. Four suites are used simultaneously, each with its own unique theme: Digital Manufacturing, Community, Free Enterprise or Communications.

In the Communications suite, students use desktop publishing software like PageMaker and Photoshop. In the Digital Manufacturing suite, students use technology like the AutoCAD LT program to design a prototype of a product, and in the Free Enterprise suite students use word processing tools to fill out legal documents for their businesses as well as design logos. In the Community suite, students are challenged to shepherd their "town" through three catastrophes, using their computers to determine the appropriate solutions.

Students are exposed to these themes as they move through curriculum in three rotations of four intervals each. Interval one, which consists of the acquisition of basic knowledge, can equal about 220 minutes for each harbor team. During interval two, the six students of the suite gather at a team table, where cooperation and leadership instruction set the stage for dynamic group interaction. This interval was designed to give students time to become more familiar with each other and to truly become a team. Only as a team can the students solve the challenges put to them as part of the Pathways curriculum.

The challenge usually occupies the suite teams for about 110 minutes. The team comes up with various possible solutions to meet the challenges, decides on a solution and then spends the 220 minutes of interval three in their respective harbors, applying the new knowledge gained in interval one toward the solution agreed on in interval two. The students e-mail each other with insights into the problem, using the technology to share information, until interval four. The fourth and final interval affords students another 110 minutes to develop and finalize a presentation of their team challenge solutions.

In the next two rotations, students switch partners, though they remain within the same suite. The students are also moved into a harbor that focuses on one of the disciplines to which he or she has not yet been exposed. An added bonus is that students learn leadership skills, even though they are engrossed in learning from the four disciplines of Digital Manufacturing, Community, Free Enterprise or Communications. Each student in the suite is a captain during one of the three rotations. These captains facilitate and manage group activities. The students acquire the necessary skills for navigating through today's work world by doing what adults in that world are doing.

The Challenge

The four disciplines are the themes that provide a basic structure for the Pathways curriculum. Each of the disciplines comes with a particular challenge for each team. For instance, in the Digital Manufacturing suite, a challenge might involve designing and subsequently manufacturing a toy. First, students work with computerized audio and video presentations in their harbors -- the materials harbor, the design harbor and the fabrication harbor -- acquiring the information needed to build this toy. During interval two, students get together and brainstorm ideas for the toy and arrive at a solution. With interval three, students return to their harbors, where they use the latest software to fabricate and design the toy or product.

During the process of designing and building the product, the fabrication team is responsible for determining the materials necessary to produce the product and then report the findings to the team using a special format. Choices of materials range from aluminum, brass and steel rods of various diameters, which can be used, for example, as the axle of a toy car. If the students are challenged with making the car, then the fabrication team also has to take into account the needed materials for the construction of the body of the car as well as the necessary items to paint the car.

After materials are noted in the design report, the fabrication team sends that information out by e-mail to the materials harbor. There the students take the information and, using a digital materials tester, determine if the materials that have been chosen in the fabrication harbor are suitable for the design. The students in the materials harbor decide the stress and load characteristics of the material and document the results in a graph.

While the fabrication and materials teams have been doing their jobs, students in the design harbor, using AutoCAD LT, design the car to detailed specifications with a template the size of the foam piece that the fabrication team will use to produce the car. After precisely drawing and scaling their creation, the design team sends its work to the fabrication harbor by way of the computer network.

The students in the fabrication team have the task of converting the file it receives into a CAM format that can be recognized by the computer-controlled foam cutter. Here students address effective uses of resources. They look at the design drawing and see if it can be cut out by the digital foam cutter as intended, without any unwanted displacement cuts through the foam. After this process has been completed, the students set up the foam cutter, place a five-inch by five-inch piece of foam on it, activate the cutter machine and watch it automatically cut out their design.

The entire suite then meets at the team table to discuss improving the product, adding a paint scheme, special wheels or any other details that might enhance the car's appearance. When the car is finished, students work on individual reports, including detailed information from the design, manufacturing, and materials testing phase of the project. The design team also has to put together a cost analysis of the project using a price catalog, based on the materials used.

Finally, the students are prepared to present the finished product to the teacher and deliver an oral report on their challenge. All six students in the suite must take part in the videotaped presentation.

The Pathways Effect

The Pathways classroom experience makes identifiable changes in the students who study in the curriculum. The teachers who have been able to take part in the relatively new program have reported significant, positive changes in students. For instance, previous underachievers gain confidence in their own abilities and begin to appreciate the work of their peers. They develop an eagerness to learn and a team spirit that carries over into everything they do. This cooperative attitude was not demonstrated by the students to this degree before the Pathways program.

The students are learning through listening to each other and through open dialogue about solving challenges. They actually want to be team players, which can only benefit them in the work world. Students will be hard-pressed to find a completely autonomous position in the job market, and the Pathways program gives them a set of skills to use in relating to their future project teams. The working world is a place where being a team player is not only appreciated, but is expected.

Plus, it's not only the students who are learning. Teachers, many of whom have their own technical degrees, are becoming familiar with the latest technologies. Pathways is geared toward teamwork, but the program is not designed to do away with the individualistic spirits of the students. In fact, the opposite is true. The beauty of the program is that the individual is bringing something to a team of other individuals.

A Pathways Future

The Pathways curriculum is an educational revolution from the traditional form of classroom instruction. Hands-on learning in a lab full of the latest technology is much more engaging than a traditional high school class. It is sure to be the wave of the future.

Pathways gives students an opportunity to take control of their learning, and no one has more to gain from their own success than they do. What they often lack is not drive or ambition but a sense of responsibility. If you simply teach a student the rote formulas of geometry, that student may never fully understand the meaning and relevance of those formulas. But if you give that student those same formulas and give the student a project to which the formulas can be applied, then you have given them something more valuable than just information -- you have given them experience. Pride is a strong motivator, and in the end, when a student makes their presentation in front of their peers, they most certainly own their education.



Joseph Bombelli started teaching at Passaic Valley Regional High School in September 1973. He taught Industrial Arts Metal Shop for 20 years. More recently, he developed and taught the computer graphics program at Passaic Valley. For the past three years Bombelli has taught the Pathways course and has also been involved with the development of the Pathways curriculum. Bombelli was Passaic Valley Teacher Of The Year 1999.

E-mail: [email protected]

This article originally appeared in the 10/01/1999 issue of THE Journal.