North Kitsap School District’s CTE program is fueling big ambitions

Studies give students hands-on experience, not just ‘theoretical stuff’

POULSBO — High school students in the North Kitsap School District are working toward dream jobs as aerospace engineers, quantum physics researchers, electrical engineers and NASA physicists, to name a few.

Most of these students said they realized they could turn their aspirations into reality after joining a Career and Technical Education program.

Sophomore Emma Higgs at North Kitsap High School is hoping to major in theoretical physics or astrophysics and said she’s thankful her family moved from Virginia to fuel that ambition. She was accepted to a similar program there, but it didn’t involve manual work.

“It wasn’t a hands-on program,” she added. “It was all theoretical stuff, so I’m really glad I moved here.”

North Kitsap High School teacher Eric Nieland said Higgs entered his program with no experience in engineering and manufacturing studies, but now she wants to become a NASA physicist.

“When she came last year, of course, she’s new to the school — super shy,” he said. “You could almost barely get two words out of her all week.”

In fact, most students who initially walk through Nieland’s shop doors have no experience in engineering or manufacturing studies, he said.

“If I say, ‘go get a Phillips screwdriver,’ they have no clue,” he said with a shrug. “It’s very rare for a kid to know how to use hand tools of any kind properly or know how to even name them.”

Although there are shop classes at the district middle schools, it’s unusual for students to have time in their schedule for those courses. Take sophomore Audrey Cole at NKHS, for example. Cole, who hopes to become a quantum physics researcher at a university, was involved in music for her three years of middle school and couldn’t get a head start on engineering before joining the program.

If some sort of prior experience were required from students, the majority wouldn’t be accepted into the program. Senior Gary Fishel at NKHS, who just got back from visiting Montana State University, said he didn’t have any prior knowledge but “figured [engineering] was worth a try.” He paused and looked down at a project he’s working on and added, “Yeah, it definitely was.”

NKHS senior Donovan LeRoy has been accepted to Washington State University with the goal of majoring in mechanical engineering. Like many, LeRoy had little to no technical experience before high school. His ultimate goal? To become an aerospace engineer.

“I pretty much know how all of these tools work,” he said, “which is a good thing because a lot of these tools are used in the workplace.”

Notice the diversity between students throughout these programs, too. Not all of them want to earn the same degree or go to the same college. Some have no desire for college in general.

These programs are designed to, as CTE director John Waller puts it, “prepare [students] for college and careers.” That isn’t to say students are influenced toward college, but rather they should be prepared to make a choice between higher education and the job field. He also touched on how CTE is a “great opportunity because it’s open to everyone.”

Even though engineering and manufacturing jobs are predominantly owned by men, students in North Kitsap’s CTE program are male and female.

“For the longest time, there was a big push for women in engineering,” Waller said. “We need to get more involved and I’m glad we’re breaking that stigma. I think it’s outstanding.”

Dianna Palermo, CTE teacher at Kingston High School, said it’s extremely important that the nation to “tap into everybody’s talent.”

Of all the differences between students and where they’re headed following high school, CTE programs remain a vital source for learning, even when things don’t go to plan.

“Weirdly enough, a lot of this stuff that I’ve made in this class has not actually worked out as well as I thought it would,” Higgs said. “The design aspect is a lot harder than I thought it would be.”

For Nieland’s students, accuracy is one detail that he said they come into the course thinking will be easy, but is actually difficult.

“With what we can do, we are accurate to about five-thousandths of an inch,” Nieland said. “Getting to that point takes about a year — to where they believe that, ‘Yes, that’s how accurate things have to be.’”

Then, students become surprised with what they can do, he said. And once they see that, there’s no stopping them.

— Jacob Moore is a reporter for Kitsap News Group. Contact him at

Sophomore Emma Higgs works on a CTE project during a Jan. 30 after-school session at North Kitsap High School. (Jacob Moore/Kitsap News Group)

Sophomore Emma Higgs works on a CTE project during a Jan. 30 after-school session at North Kitsap High School. (Jacob Moore/Kitsap News Group)