Cool new electives give high schoolers a taste of work world

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Teacher Jason Wood would like to see some of his students at Jefferson and Washington high schools become video game designers.

It’s a growing field that students in his business and computer science classes are interested in. It pays well, has job security and has proved to be relatively “recession-proof” in recent years. So why not teach a class on it?

His new course on video game marketing and design starts in the fall and joins a robust elective lineup that increasingly includes more chances for students to try careers before graduation.

The argument for including more career-based electives is an easy one for Wood.

“You can explore the career now and it’s not going to cost you, or you can explore it at college and it’s going to cost you thousands of dollars,” he said.

Wood’s new course already has attracted a lot of student interest, said Lorie Bateman, assistant principal at Jefferson.

Another elective that has captured student attention is a food and nutrition class in its first year of being offered. The class gives students hands-on cooking experience and is so popular with the student body, the district is adding a second level next year.

Just because a student takes these courses doesn’t mean he or she is going to become a game programmer or a chef. The electives let students try on professional experiences, said Keith Stamp, an administrator with Grant Wood Area Education Agency and a former high school principal.

“It helps the student make a more informed decision about what career area they want to pursue. It’s starting that journey, not replacing it,” said Stamp.

If a student decides to take that next step, there are many career academy electives at Cedar Rapids schools that transfer as college credit for Kirkwood Community College.

While there are a greater variety of electives available, graduation requirements force students to be judicious in how they spend their extra periods. Starting this year, Iowa requires all students to take four years of English/language arts and three years each of math, science and social studies. Students also need to take physical education all four years, unless they get an athletics waiver.

There’s a tendency, particularly among seniors nearing graduation, to not take elective choices seriously. That’s a mistake that Mark Gronemeyer, Prairie High School principal, encourages his students to avoid. Gronemeyer challenges his seniors to make sure they’re adequately prepared for the next part of their lives.

“I ask them, ‘What math and science class are you taking?’ The response I get a lot is: ‘Well, I wasn’t going to take one,’ ” said Gronemeyer. “I tell anyone thinking of anything post-college, you need four years of everything.”

Gronemeyer is pleased to see the rise of career-focused electives, but he feels a strong core of math and science is necessary, whether a student plans to attend a four-year university or pursue a trade.

“If you want to be a plumber or an electrician, the amount of math required for those professions is huge,” he said.

Prairie High School is exploring new electives as well, with an emphasis on emerging technologies. The electric car program has been a staple, and next year, the school will offer 21st-Century Problem Solving, which focuses on applying modern technology to solve real-life issues.

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