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To prepare students for real-world design and engineering jobs, Chester Upland School District chooses Chromebooks and itopia

Meeting tough challenges while elevating student skills

Since many CUSD students come from low-income families, the district’s educators are committed to equipping students with skills to ensure successful careers upon graduation – particularly in the design and engineering fields. “The vision of the Chester Upland School District is for every student to graduate ready for college and/or a career in spite of any and all challenges,” reads the district’s vision statement.

However, the “any and all challenges” are many. The district is under financial receivership by the Pennsylvania Department of Education, so budgets are tight. “In our district, setting up a technology lab could take two years to happen,” explains Allen Smith, a Career and Technical Education (CTE) engineering teacher. CUSD is also designated as a “turnaround district” due to its low student academic achievement.

Though faced with these obstacles, Smith and educator colleagues such as fellow CTE teacher Caitlin Merto have created engaging and challenging lessons that sharpen students’ skills for the post-graduation labor market. With Google for Education Chromebooks, itopia Labs, and Adobe Creative Cloud, CUSD educators now have a platform that inspires creative teaching with real-world impacts.

The search for powerful devices that offer students more flexibility

CUSD’s CTE department offers programs in engineering, communications technology, and automotive technology, among others. Many students work on projects designed to give them real-life experience, such as designing business logos and editing images with Adobe Photoshop. The result is that students graduate with professional design portfolios that can help them get their first job after graduation.

In the days before the COVID-19 pandemic and remote schooling, students could complete some of their CTE coursework in a computer lab. But many students didn’t have home internet access, and their digital devices didn’t have the minimum requirements needed to run advanced tools like Creative Cloud.

Design solutions for real-world projects, powered by Chromebooks

With the steady adoption of Chromebooks, education leaders also recognized the need for solutions that would accelerate the use of design software solutions by STEM Academy students – while also working well on Chromebooks. itopia, which creates “virtual cloud labs” for students, was chosen to run Adobe tools such as Photoshop, as well as Autodesk AutoCAD and Revit.

Chromebooks and itopia are helping educators provide CUSD students with access to the kinds of solutions that well-funded school districts take for granted. “Technology helps us to exploit the gaps of resources that we have in our district,” Smith says.

With itopia on Chromebooks, educators and staff also benefit from the significantly reduced number of IT headaches involved with deploying and maintaining complex and IT resource-heavy software solutions.

“With our Mac lab, we have to engage IT even for minor issues – like doing a factory reset on computers,” Merto says. “But with itopia, we don’t have to wait for the technology department to figure things out. It gives us a lot more flexibility when we want students to have access to design applications right away. The support from itopia also gives us more time to spend with students, since we don’t need to spend time troubleshooting the solution.”

For Smith, who worked in engineering before turning to teaching, the combination of Chromebooks and itopia gives his students a pro-level experience of design tools. That means the students can be even more prepared to take on design tasks at the college level, or in their first jobs out of high school.

“I want my students to experience a real day on the job,” Smith says. “Because of Google and itopia, in the STEM Academy right now, I can mimic real engineering firm projects. When we fired up Autodesk’s AutoCAD program on Chromebooks and itopia, I saw no latency, even when I threw every task at it. That’s amazing to me.”

“Seeing the full Adobe Creative Suite running on school-issued Chromebooks illustrates the strong partnership that Google and Adobe have in enabling creativity in education,” says Jessica Naeve, head of product marketing at Adobe for Education. “It’s exciting to see itopia help Chromebook students run full-powered software.”

Students can also gain confidence in tackling real projects under the guidance of educators. Merto oversees these types of projects, such as design requests from the Chester chapter of the NAACP when event posters or new business cards are needed.

“If a job comes into our studio, students create a team, and they know the process to go through in order to gather the information – like doing the appropriate research, design, and providing the end results to the client,” Merto says. “So we’re using Adobe, itopia, and Chromebooks not only to make sure students can do the items on the CTE task list, but also to open ourselves up to helping our community.”

On the journey to a cloud campus

CUSD was already using Google Workspace for Education to help educators and students share assignments and projects. Google Classroom and Google Drive are the repositories for engineering drawings. And Merto has trained many fellow educators and district staffers in using Google Forms, Docs, and Sheets.

“Our after-school program used a 25-page paper application,” Metro says. “We had to keep track of where all of these 25 pages were for every kid. I got people to adopt a Google Form instead of the paper application. That way, if something happens, we can all access the same information at the same time. If something needs to be updated, it can be updated for everybody at the same time.”

The STEM Academy’s experience with Chromebooks allowed the school’s leaders to assist other district schools in adopting Chromebooks for every student. Today, all schools in the district have 1:1 programs, with 2,500 Chromebooks in use. As Merto says, “The Chromebook initiative went outside of these walls and into other CUSD schools.”