December 2013/January 2014 Issue
December 17, 2013

Real-world learning: Ulster BOCES team drives home importance of CTE

Author: Sylvia Saunders
Source: NYSUT United
boces tech
Caption: From left: Kathy Taylor, Ulster BOCES TO and NYSUT Board member; NYSUT Vice President Maria Neira; student Nick Martorano; teachers Mark Harris and Cliff Brosnan; student Myles Harris; and teacher Noah Smith with the award-winning, solar-powered car. PHOTO: MARTY KERINS JR.

Calling their accomplishment the "ultimate authentic assessment," NYSUT Vice President Maria Neira praised the team of Ulster BOCES students who built an award-winning solar car that symbolizes everything that's right about Career and Technical Education.

At a time when the state is increasingly focused on standardized testing, NYSUT's BOCES Leadership Conference this fall showcased the Team VoltTech students who designed, engineered, built and drove their solar-powered car from Texas to California to win the 2013 Solar Car Challenge.

"When you go outside to the parking lot, you'll see what an authentic assessment looks like," Neira told BOCES educators from across the state. "We all know authentic assessments demonstrate a student's learning in a way that no bubble test can do. That's what CTE programs are all about: performance-based, real-world learning. That's what we're fighting for."

"The skills they learned could never have been measured on a standardized test," said Kathy Landers, president of the Ulster BOCES Teachers' Organization, as she introduced representatives of the award-winning team of teachers and students. Aside from the technical aspects of building the solar car, Landers noted the project introduced the students to a variety of career-ready marketable skills: team-building, leadership development, project management - even fundraising and public relations.

Team members explained how the year-long, hands-on work grew into a real-life science project. "The complex math and science involved with this car is amazing," said Mark Harris, who teaches design/manufacturing technology. "But aside from the academic work, this project took on a life of its own, with kids working on the car at school until 11 at night. They were incredibly motivated."

Students from numerous classes participated, too. Graphic arts students designed the logo for the team. Auto students helped with welding. A fashion student assisted with marketing and public relations. "It really became a community event," Harris said.

When the students got down to Texas over the summer for the "scrutineering" process, it was much more than a show-and-tell. They had to explain all the technical specifications - every fuse - to a judge, all by themselves, Harris said. With practice drives at the Texas Motor Speedway, the students had to prove the car was road-worthy and met all the mechanical, electrical and safety requirements.

The "scrutineering" was stressful but showcased the group's teamwork.

"When we had the electrical and safety exam, we had to fix multiple problems quickly," said student Nick Martorano. "It was 110 degrees in the hot July sun but the judges said they had never seen a team work so fast, so hard together. I think that problem-solving approach came from our phenomenal BOCES education."

The solar car project offers a powerful lesson in how a schoolwide project can offer "real and relevant stuff" that will inspire students, said science teacher Noah Smith.

"I know sometimes it's a struggle to connect academics with real-world learning, but that's where the idea of a schoolwide project comes in," Smith said. "You don't have to build a solar car. You just have to make something real and relevant ... think of something that will bring your community together."

For more information, go to the Ulster BOCES Facebook page at


NYSUT has created a Career and Technical Education focus group to make recommendations to the State Education Department on ways to expand CTE programming options for students. What kind of performance-based authentic assessment has worked well in your classroom? Share your experience and let us know what you and your students learned. Write to us at