Left to right: Trey Stefanik, Levi Williamson, Dylaan Cannon, Kamden Quinn, Lisa Larson (EMCC President), Taylor Tindall, Erika Robinson, and Elizabeth Dempsey.
The lobby of the United Technologies Center (UTC) in Bangor, Maine, hits you with a breath of fresh air the moment you step inside. The Ford Model T is the first thing you see, dominating a 1940s-themed exhibit; a unique lobby for a unique school. The ‘21 model is fully functional–it was up to the students of UTC to repair and subsequently weather the car to match its post-Great Depression environment, a history and mechanics lesson fused into one impressive undertaking.
This type of coloring-outside-the-lines thinking sets the stage for the colorful educational performance unfolding within those nondescript exterior walls. The halls of the UTC are innovative and alive, decorated thoroughly in a hip industrial style that would look more at home in an artisan coffee bar than a high school shop class.
This presentation becomes all the more impressive when you learn that it was painstakingly built—and still is being built—by the staff of UTC themselves. In the Technology room, a member of UTC’s staff gestures around the room and rattles off details that one would only remember from direct involvement. “The caging on the ceiling is from the Aeropostale in the mall when that shut down,” he says, “and the metal on the walls came from the Spencer’s.” Walls from the mall, floors from anywhere else—the entire building is recycled leftovers and scraps that have undergone the transformative magic of hard work, and become something fresh and inspiring. The tireless group of educators here will stay into the early hours of the morning building the school from the ground up, only to return a few hours later and continue teaching classes. The floor-to-ceiling array is a physical manifestation of the time and passion invested by a small but extraordinary staff into this obviously beloved institution.
A staff member hands us a sleek course book resembling a magazine, confidently waiting for us to remark on its design before revealing that it was created by one of their own students. The school has seen rapid growth in recent years; 1,800 of these magazines were distributed last year, a number which nearly doubled to over 3,000 this year. In that same period of time, enrollment has increased by 15% from 600 to 700 students. At this rate of growth, the staff are working around the clock to meet demand.
“We just need more space,” says Bill Hartt, a high school Junior enrolled at UTC, when asked if there was anything he would change about the program. “And more Mrs. Ps.”
Mrs. P, AKA Amanda Peterson, is another of the school’s deeply committed staff. Where the average college professor would teach three to four courses, Peterson has taken on the instruction of seven courses at once. She allows students to work at their own pace as individuals, providing personalized instruction and guidance as needed, but also fosters an autonomous and collaborative learning environment centered around projects. A classroom at UTC operates much like a team: there are many players present, each with a specialized task in mind, and they win the game when everyone does their part. In this model, instructors, like Peterson, function as the coach.
We have the opportunity to sit in on a typical UTC class in action as a young man gives a presentation on his project. These Business students, Peterson explains, were tasked with designing a business and calculating all of the costs and responsibilities involved. They were also told to design an original logo. Many of the students had no prior graphic design experience, and had to rely upon their own skills and intuition complete the project. That kind of unexpected and autonomous learning is what UTC prides themselves upon: a system built upon principles of freedom and intuition that will prepare high school teens for the real world.
Lisa Larson, President of Eastern Maine Community College (EMCC), sits down with us to talk about the ongoing collaboration between the two schools. With access to the dual-enrollment program, students have the opportunity to complete their high schools GEDs and graduate with a two-year Associate’s Degree already under their belt. Some of these young adults go directly into a trade with the certifications they can attain between the two schools; others go on to four-year universities with more than half of their credits already finished. Currently there are four certificate programs available through this union: Business, Automotive, Computer Coding, and Computer Repair. Students who belong to both schools are given shirts bearing the phrase “One Campus, Two Schools,” which they wear with pride.
We sit down with three graduating seniors in Peterson’s class to talk about their experience. Dylaan Cannon tells us that he was able to finish his high school curriculum early by taking no study halls, which allowed him to pursue a more intense course-load at UTC in preparation for his attendance at the University of Maine this Fall. He will be pursuing a degree in Computer Science, while already well-versed in Business from his time at UTC.
“There’s no time for procrastination,” jokes Levi Williamson, an eighteen-year-old who has been juggling baseball and golf with his UTC curriculum, and his normal high school requirements on top of it. He says that UTC was always willing to work with him to ensure he could excel, but putting in the legwork was up to him. Taylor Tindall, a fellow student, says that he had never planned to pursue a degree, but after his experience at UTC will now be finishing his Associate’s degree at EMCC.
All three echoed the same sentiment: UTC challenged them to work to get ahead, and rewarded them by allowing them to do so. When given the freedom to do so, Peterson explains, students will rise to the challenge and often excel beyond it. Courses at UTC appeal to high schoolers due to their real world application, as their college credits will carry on with them if they continue into higher education.
The United Technologies Center is innovating education from the inside-out: they are preparing students for the future not only academically, but individually. The autonomy that the Center grants its students, while daunting at first, helps them grow as individuals and aspiring professionals. Students are allowed to fail, and they are encouraged to learn from failure. Having assumed direct responsibility over their own progress, many students become serious about school.
Using what the staff refer to as a ‘workable model for higher education’, this institution is building a bridge between high school and college or the workforce. Students no longer have to take the plunge into adulthood before they ever learn to swim; instead they have a guided but independent learning environment that facilitates the pursuit of oft-overlooked skills, such as culinary arts and horticulture, which will aid them long after they leave the Center.
From health occupations to Maine Guide training; from the student-run bakery to learning about and operating heavy machinery, there is something for everyone at the United Technologies Center. Whether they enter with higher education in mind, or planning to go directly into a trade, students have more opportunities for success because of UTC and their collaboration with EMCC. This one-campus-two-schools system makes the pipe dream of free college a reality to the future leaders and innovators of Northern Maine.