Sophomore Brandy Joyce’s shop class stinks like a dank fish tank.

Actually, it smells like seven dank fish tanks as large as 1,500 gallons, swirling with tilapia, tautog, largemouth bass, koi, and red belly turtles.

“This shop is why I’m here,” said Joyce, a student at Upper Cape Regional Technical School in Bourne, Mass., who breeds zebra fish in the school’s environmental technology lab. She plans on going to college, and maybe then getting a doctorate.

The smell of sawdust from carpentry classes still wafts down the hall at Upper Cape Tech and other technical high schools across the country. But a new crop of course work–biotechnology, DNA forensics, robotics, golf-course management, aquaculture–has enlivened traditional vocational education shops.

The offerings have helped fuel an apparent surge in vocational education enrollment across the country in the last five years. The swell in traditional and newfangled shop classes comes, however, at a time when federal funding for the programs is again in danger.

The Bush administration has proposed eliminating federal money earmarked for vocational education for the second consecutive year. Although Congress re-appropriated $1.3 billion in the last budget, the funding is back on the chopping block.

The proposed cut comes after a U.S. Department of Education (ED) report to Congress showed that enrollment in vocational education has soared by 57 percent, to 15.1 million in 2004 from 9.6 million in 1999.

ED has said it wants to shift the money to a high school reform initiative that includes grants targeting ninth graders and more student assessments. The department questions the accuracy of the congressional report because the numbers are self-reported by states.

“On the whole, we are not getting the results we should be” from vocational education, said Holly A. Kuzmich, the deputy assistant education secretary for policy. “Our goal is to make sure students are on grade level in reading and math, graduating and ready for the jobs of the 21st century.”

The majority of vocational school funding comes from state and local sources. Schools such as Upper Cape Tech, however, use their share of the $1.3 billion federal allotment for seed money for new programs and teacher development.

“To me, it would bring us to our knees,” said Leo Bedard, who supervises the environment technology program, of the proposed funding cut. “We wouldn’t have any of those high-tech programs.”

That high-tech list is long: students building solar panels and wind turbines to produce electricity used in classrooms; races with classroom-built robots; computer networking certifications–even the carpentry students are using plastic foam to build a better insulated press box for a minor league baseball team.

“It’s not your grandfather’s trade school,” said Upper Cape Principal Kevin Farr.

In Mesa, Ariz., the East Valley Institute of Technology launched a golf-course management class with about 50 students spending part of their day learning about different types of grass, growing vegetation in a desert climate, and designing new greens, fairways, and water hazards.

The Greater Johnstown Career and Technology Center in Pennsylvania has 30 teenagers wading into the world of DNA. In a biotechnology lab, the students match mock criminal suspects with crime-scene evidence, grow cell-tissue cultures, and plan to begin working with stem cells.

“People still think of it as vocational education instead of career education,” said Rosalind Servinsky, who teaches Johnstown’s biotechnology class. “We are trying to change that thinking. These are no longer the slow kids who can’t go to college.”

In Massachusetts, vocational enrollment has jumped 21 percent in the past 11 years. Upper Cape Tech, which received $135,000 in federal funds last year in a total budget of about $8 million, has accepted 180 students as incoming freshman, and has another 180 on a waiting list.

Advocates insist that the hands-on work in shops gives students who might have struggled in the past a sense of purpose that carries over into academic classes.

“We want kids to take pride in their work,” Bedard said. “We want them to feel ownership.”

In the environmental technology lab, Erick Feleciano, 15, scraped mineral crust off of a glass tube used to maintain water quality in the tilapia tank.

In another corner of the airy lab is a contraption made with a 50-gallon drum that students use to convert used vegetable oil from deep fryers in the culinary arts classes into diesel fuel.

Away from the noise, Joyce tends her minnow-sized zebra fish, keeping tabs on the water temperature and PH level, and thinking about how she ended up there.

“I thought, tech school, I don’t want to go to tech school,” Joyce recalled as she chased a silver flash of a fish with a small net. “Then I came here and saw something I was actually interested in.”

Links:

Upper Cape Tech
http://www.uppercapetech.com/

East Valley Institute of Technology
http://www.evit.com/

Greater Johnstown Career and Technology Center
http://www.gjctc.tec.pa.us/