In 2013, the Greater Waco Advanced Manufacturing Academy opened its doors to an inaugural class of nearly 70 students. Since then that number has more than doubled. The school's administration sees this growth as a reflection of the resurgence of vocational education. The high school juniors and seniors that attend the academy learn about things like robotics, electronics and even get welding experience.
It’s 8:05 and the first bell of the day rings throughout the halls at the Greater Waco Advanced Manufacturing Academy.
The hall is filled with some students shuffling their way into first period and some teachers ushering those kids into class. But by this time, 17-year-old Bridgette Wafer – a senior at Riesel High School – is already in Math, working on the day’s assignment.
Like the other students that attend GWAMA, Bridgette comes from 1 of 14 partnering schools – some as far as 60 miles away. During the school’s 2-year programs, these students learn about things like electronics and robotics, or acquire trade skills like welding. They can even take their math and science courses here. The chemistry class has a metallurgy component to it so kids can learn what happens to metals when they’re welding them.
But Bridgette is here for robotics. She says ever since she was a kid she was fascinated by the world of wires and artificial intelligence.
“I’ve always wanted to build robots since I was little," Wafer said. "When I was younger they made us do a project and my choice was to build a fake robot that would do everything for you.”
In her robotics class, Bridgette has continued that childhood dream. She’s learning to program NAO, a humanoid robot, which the students at GWAMA have affectionately dubbed “Ditto”. The programmable robot gleefly shouts "Hello, congratulations" upon starting it.
Exercises like these are all part of a day’s work for Bridgette and the students at GWAMA, from programming the movements of robots, to building rockets that will launch 800 feet into the air. (side note: the students are launching these rockets at Space-X. Yeah Space-X, pretty cool, right? OK, back to the story).
The need for these types of vocational skills is what led the Waco business community and education circles to establish GWAMA in 2013. The school’s assistant Director Dustin Davison says the school helps students to develop those sought-after labor skills, and in doing so, also addresses another pressing community issue, poverty.
“We really feel we are affecting a community, because we are training students to possibly go out and get that better job than what their parents have," Davison said. "and we are changing that poverty level one kid at a time, really, and giving a student every opportunity that they can.”
The costs to attend GWAMA are covered by a student’s school district. Districts throughout the Lone Star State are eligible to receive extra funding for students in approved Career and Technology Education – or CTE – programs. According to the Texas Education Agency, districts receive 35 percent more funding for students enrolled in CTE programs than for students that aren’t.
Additionally, CTE courses were bolstered by House Bill 5. You may recall HB5, which the Texas Legislature passed in 2013. The bill changed graduation requirements for Texas students and did away with some end-of-course assessments, too. But it also required students to earn an “endorsement” in a specific field, like STEM subjects, or public services or business and industry. This, Davison believes, helped to spur interest in career and technology education.
“Our students are coming out of high school and they have a long list of things they can actually do, and that’s something that’s so important and crucial in the Waco area" Davison said.
Back in her Robotics class, Bridgette is trying to program it so Ditto will wave hello. When she graduates this spring, she and the other students in the robotics academy will leave with 9 hours of credit at TSTC. Welding and precision manufacturing students come out with 12 credits. For Bridgette, coming here helped her realize what she wanted to do.
“If I had the choice to go back and change my decisions I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t change anything. I like this program. It’s what I’m passionate about, doing the robots and all of this," Wafer said.
After she packs up Ditto, Bridgette gathers her books and heads towards the bus that will take her back to Riesel where she’ll go to her English classes. But she’ll be back tomorrow to continue preparing for her future.