Air Date: October 30, 2012
Our guest is Joe Youcha of Building to Teach. Formerly the education director of the Alexandria Seaport Foundation, Youcha now spends his time running a train-the-trainers program for hands-on math instructors.
NOTE: You can click here to listen to an MP3 file for this show.
“For 20 years, I’ve been using boat building as an educational tool,” he tells us. “In Building to Teach, the idea is to tap into groups that use boat building as a teaching tool, as well as volunteers from industry. We’re now funded by the Office of Naval Research. “ Youcha is also the co-author of the Carpenters’ Union math training materials, used by about 30,000 union apprentices each year.
Joe Youcha’s involvement with boatbuilding as way to teach practical skills began in 1992 when he and Bill Hunt began working with an alternative high school in Alexandria, desperate for any way to teach math. As a result, Youcha and Hunt taught the students lofting, and found that kids who were years behind other students in math skills pretty much flew by the others, because the were so interested in the boats.
After that, Youcha became increasingly involved with community boatbuilding and family boatbuilding (sponsored by WoodenBoat magazine), and eventually found himself at the helm of the Alexandria Seaport ‘apprenticeship’ program for at-risk youth. “We tried to get them back on track,” he says. “More than half needed to get their GEDs, and the program became very job-based.” Very soon, Youcha began getting phone calls from all over the country wanting to know how to replicate the program.
“It all goes back to skills, often soft skills (i.e. show up on time, be responsible, and so on). The only ‘hard’ skill was math,” recalls Youcha.
PBRadio Host ANN AVARY: How have kids responded to learning math this way?
JOE YOUCHA: It’s almost universal, and it doesn’t matter where the students come from. The kids aren’t being taught that math is useful and it can help them do what they want to do. For example, we had one Alexandria Seaport Apprentice want to go into the Coast Guard, and he didn’t go well on the math portion of the exam. We sat down and went through the questions, and I found out that he didn’t know how to do percentages and work with decimals. After a few sessions, he re-took the test and crushed it.
We also have worked with a top technical school. With one group, we made a log canoe at George Washington’s estate in Mount Vernon. The first step was figuring out where to make the first cut with a perpendicular bi-cut. “You probably learned this in fourth grade?” I said to one girl. She said, “I did, but I didn’t know you could use it.”
AVARY: I want to remind people to look at your website: wwwbuildingtoteach.com. You also do train the trainer workshops, and you’re the recipient of an office naval research grant.
YOUCHA: The ONR is very involved in STEM and they are looking at providing the future of their workforce (including civilian employees), so I hear the same thing from the naval architecture firms as I hear from the carpenters union: “Our workforce is aging and the new people coming in don’t have the match skills.” So, ONR is running a grant program to help with the education of young people, and they are funding a lot of good stuff.
AVARY: When did you get the grant?
YOUCHA: We got notification in 2011. I’ve been doing this for 20 years, and I know we can’t go out and joint venture with everyone who wants to do what we are doing, but we can help build capacity by training instructors. So, our train the trainer program does reflect my 20 years of experience, and we are putting the money out in mini-grants. This helps the recipients, and also helps them to do things they way we want to get them done. I know from running a non-profit is that when you are asked to report to funders in a certain way, you do.
We went through and identified the math skills that you can teach in an online setting. If you want to work with kids, you’ve got to be able to show attainment. And you’ve got to be able to link math skills to hands-on training. If anyone contacts us, we’ll provide them with access to all of our materials. Right now, we have between 180 and 190 people using the site. That’s all Level 1 training. Then we do training with people who are working with underserved students.
So far, we’ve seen roughly 800 kids using the materials. About 250 have completed their projects. It’s a small sample, but historically we have seen a 20 to 30 percent increase in math skills. Students pick the math skills they want to focus on.
A: I looked at the site and felt that this is clearly a model that does not exclude the employer.
Y: It’s a three-legged stool and they are one of the legs. Again, our experience at the Seaport has been tailored to the building trades. One of the things I’ve learned is the difference between customers and clients. In this type of work, the clients are the students, and the customers are the companies in the industry. What we’re trying to do is to build responsible, capable citizens who are employable in good jobs. Our whole model is that part of it has to be sustainable. We’re not going to get ONR funding forever, so we’ve got to be worth someone buying this service.
A: What goes on in you train-the-trainer workshops? I know there was one here in Washington State. When will the next one be?
Y: We don’t know when the next one will be yet. We are still working on our funding,
A: Can you tell us more about the training?
Y: The folks that we’ve trained have ranged from school teachers to people in the marine industry to native Americans trying to spread more of cultural heritage. For someone to take the in-person training, you have to have completed the online portion of the program. Our in-person training is learning to apply those skills to each person’s specific needs. I always get more from the attendees than they get for me. We usually have 20 instructors in a room, they all learn from each other, and I learn from all of them. It’s a wide variety of schools, including an International Baccalaurete school that works with Joe Norton in their 7th grade math. In East Lyme, CT, an alternative school works with Mystic Seaport in project-based learning. (They are a “Big Picture” school.) There’s also Cape Cod maritime museum, and I think there are programs now in 28 states.
A: What about the Small Boat Alliance?
Y: Back in the early 90s, there were two conferences on working with kids, and then we never got together again. Matt Murphy (WoodenBoat) then encouraged us to get together more often and to get the Small Boat Alliance off the ground. We had a conference in Washington in May 2012 with same numbers as our earlier East Coast conference, and now we know there are thousands of kids learning math through boatbuilding. The list is long, and covers the whole country. Tampa, for example, is opening a new maritime high school. People are waking up to the size and potential of our industry.
For the companies, it’s all about workforce development. The companies can be more certain that they are going to have a skilled workforce. We’re helping them build the links.
A: What we’re seeing in Washington is an increase in awareness of what the marine industry is and what it can offer. Are you seeing school districts investing more in these projects?
Y: I think that the pendulum is starting to swing that way. A lot depends on the willingness of these schools to talk. We are a maritime nation. We may not be much of a shipbuilding nation, but we are a maritime nation. I think we will be more engaged with maritime industries and marine science in the future. The oceans cover 80 percent of the globe and we ignore them at our peril.
As for math, we assume that our kids know the basics, and they don’t! We’ve got to teach them.