South Beaver Dam Elementary School FIRST Lego League team members, from left, Claire Kuzniewicz, Owen Hemling and Ethan Pasewald present their robotics project to school staff in December 2018.

There was a time when young people, particularly young men, in southern Illinois could envision their future at an early age.

After finishing high school, many children knew there would be work for them on the family farm. Still others knew they could find good paying jobs at one of the many coal mines scattered throughout the region.

The education offered by local school districts — reading, writing and arithmetic — taught young men and women the basic skills they needed to survive. Any additional training that could be gleaned from industrial arts or automotive classes was a bonus.

By the time the 1970s and 1980s rolled around, a college degree was considered a necessity for most, even in rural areas, even in coal country.

However, the world doesn’t stand still. The job market is forever shifting.

Small family farms disappeared. Coal seams were exhausted, forcing mines to close. Technology whittled away at the number of jobs at the remaining mines. Students emerged from college with mountains of debt and degrees that no longer guaranteed a job.

The disappearance of manufacturing and retail jobs threw additional shadows over the job market. The real world changed so rapidly education couldn’t keep up with students’ changing needs.

The days are long gone when basic math and reading skills taught at the high school level are sufficient to navigate today’s job market.

That’s what makes the new robotics program offered at Elverado Community Unit District so exciting. The new program can lay a foundation for careers in coding or robotics, or at least provide realistic pathways into related fields that high school students might never have considered.

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“We have lots of gamers and we wanted to show them that there are other ways to use those skills other than playing video games,” said Belinda Conner, Elverado’s instructional services director. “We want them to learn the processes behind the technology.”

We couldn’t agree more.

The job market will continue to evolve in the next generation. There are few manufacturing jobs, and barring unforeseen circumstances, mining and agricultural jobs will continue to decline.

Technology, whether it relates to renewable energy, automation or communications, is the present, and, presumably, the future.

And, early indications are that students are enjoying the new curriculum.

Steve Bridgman, who teaches art in addition to the robotics class, said students’ faces light up when they solve coding problems and their robots perform as intended.

Finally, the curriculum stresses critical thinking, a skill vital to every profession.

“I try,” Bridgman said, “even in my art class, to let the kids know ‘I’m not going to give you the answer to every problem. I’ll help you with different solutions so that you can find the answer.’”

Therein lies the fundamental definition of success in any endeavor. No one knows what the future holds, but this program is capable of given students a glimpse, not to mention hope for a brighter future. No school can provide a better service than that.

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