MANATEE -- Braden River High School junior Katherine Zimmerman stood before some guests in her school's engineering lab Friday. Zimmerman, 17, explained how she programmed a gadget with binary code so that LED lighting produced text.
There were some blank looks -- until she revealed it was a fan that displays a message when it's turned on.
Too complicated for a high school student? Hardly.
Zimmerman is part of her high school's engineering academy, a rigorous program that prepares students for careers in specific industries while in high school. Manatee County has established career academies under various umbrellas in almost all of its high schools, and created similar programs in several of its middle and elementary schools.
These programs are fuel
ing student achievement in national competitions and statewide tests, and other districts are noticing.
On Friday, Pasco County officials, including new superintendent Kurt Browning and Pasco Economic Development Council President John Hagen, took a tour of the engineering labs in three district schools. They took notes, particularly on the engineering and science programs.
Manatee has become a state and national leader in career and technical education, Doug Wagner, district director of Adult, Career and Technical Education, said.
The key to Manatee County's success is that many programs have been implemented on all grade levels, from once-a-week workshops in some elementary schools to elective career classes in high school.
The district was one of the first in the state to create an academy when, more than a decade ago, the Florida Department of Education offered grants to schools willing to try a teaching model that revolved around smaller learning communities. Now, the state requires every high school to have one registered career and professional education academy, Wagner said.
The program allows students to take courses that will help them pass industry certification tests, such as the SolidWorks test for engineers or Adobe Flash for those who want to pursue media or design. It gives them an edge when competing against others for internships or college acceptance. And it naturally incorporates science, technology, engineering and math standards outlined by the state that affect performance grades and state funding.
If students are successful, then the programs can pay for themselves, Wagner said. Last year, the district received about $350,000 from the state for high school students that have passed industry certification tests. That money goes back into the program.
"It's a buy-in that benefits the schools and the students," said Haile Middle School engineering technology teacher Justin Erickson. This year, eight of Erickson's middle-schoolers passed the SolidWorks certification test, a test most professionals take when they begin in the industry.
As of this school year, middle schools can start receiving state money for industry certifications too, Wagner said.
On Friday, some of Erickson's students, who had chosen to come in on an in-service day for an open lab, designed Adirondack chairs using SolidWorks software or mapped out plans for a water tower by hand.
The program is streamlined so that education builds on itself, Wagner said. If a child can build catapults that launch marshmallows in elementary school, then by middle school he or she can dive into laser engraving. Perhaps by high school, that student might settle on a focus or have the critical thinking skills to apply to any field.
This need for consistency is partly why all schools use SolidWorks in engineering programs, Erickson said.
"They are not learning SolidWorks and then moving on to high school and learning something different," Erickson said.
It's a system other districts want to emulate.
Pasco County has a relatively new academy program, said Rob Aguis, the director of Community, Career and Technical Education in Pasco County. The district started academies in 2006 with just a planning grant. Now, they want to grow, he said, and start implementing programs into their elementary schools to support curriculum already in place at higher grade levels.
"I can see the connection that streams through early learning and into secondary learning here," Aguis said.
Implementing these programs in all grades has made Manatee County students more competitive.
Students representing the Manatee County Technology Student Association have ranked first in the nation at the National TSA conference for the past six years. Braden River High School is both the defending state and national champions in the Technology Students Association competition.
And knowledge breeds confidence.
Braden River High School student Abigail Holmes, 16, just passed Part I of the SolidWorks certification test. If she passes Part II, her teachers think she will be the first female high school student in the state to have a SolidWorks certification.
"Most high-schoolers don't get an opportunity to take the test," she said, before grinning. "And next week I'm going to pass Part II."
Newly-elected Pasco County Commissioner Kathryn Starkey was impressed with all the programs.
"This takes the theoretical," she said, "and applies it to practical life,"
Katy Bergen, Herald education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081.