All Articles Education Voice of the Educator Project-based learning helps CTE meet its potential

Project-based learning helps CTE meet its potential

CTE can play a vital role in keeping communities intact, and project-based learning in CTE provides the tools to deliver on that promise.

8 min read

EducationVoice of the Educator

Three young women with hair-cutting scissors and a brush for project-based learning in CTE article.

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In my six years as a cosmetology teacher at Ulster Board of Cooperative Educational Services in New York state, I have developed a great appreciation for the role of career and technical education in rural communities like the ones we serve. Project-based learning in CTE has made a real difference in our rural community.

headshot of Kate Weston of Ulster BOCES for project-based learning in CTE article.

In the coming year, I’m looking forward to stepping into the role of workplace learning coordinator. In this new position, I’ll focus on helping students find internships and job-shadowing opportunities in an effort to help them bridge the gap between school and employment. I will also be engaging experts and opening the walls of our classrooms to ensure students are working on meaningful projects with authentic audiences to foster the skills that we know are critical for the future of work and success.

Project-based learning is one of the key tools that I’m most excited about bringing to that role. It helps ensure that the education our students receive is both relevant to local industry and fun and interesting for our students. I’m fortunate to have the support of my district in deploying PBL to the point that they are sending me to a professional learning camp on the other side of the country to ensure we make the most of it for our students.

Here’s why we’re so excited about the potential of project-based learning in CTE.

CTE keeps rural communities intact

For students, project-based learning in CTE gives them the opportunity to learn a lot of hands-on procedures. In our cosmetology program, for example, students learn the necessary techniques to pass the New York State Board licensing examinations for cosmetologists. When they graduate from high school, they are ready to begin on a career pathway, which might mean working while they go to college, staying in the community and beginning a career, or even starting their own business.

Along the way, they have many opportunities to speak with industry professionals, job-shadow people working in careers they are interested in or otherwise work alongside people in those fields. At a time when so many people in our country are saddled with enormous student debt, CTE programs give students a chance to try out a career without sinking their future life savings into a degree they may not ever use.

Building partnerships with the community 

We have advisory boards composed of salon owners, spa owners and other professionals within our industry who collaborate with us on project-based learning curriculum. They give us insight into industry trends and alert us to trends among our own students, such as a lack of soft skills in recent graduates. Rather than guessing about the skills and dispositions that our students will need to be successful, we can bring our local workforce into the process so we are 100% sure that we are upskilling to ensure a vibrant and successful workforce in Ulster County and beyond.

By hosting our students in job-shadowing opportunities or internships, these businesses provide access to state-of-the-art equipment that our community and district simply can’t afford to buy for classroom use. They serve as guest speakers, visit the classroom to give presentations and host capstone experiences for students nearing graduation. They are indispensable in making sure the education our students receive is relevant and in giving our students a visceral understanding of what the trade has to offer.

Students build relationships with the professionals

Recently, an advisory member provided a challenge for our students in which they explored different products prior to their market launch. After the challenge, she invited two students to join her for a film class she teaches where they had the opportunity to work on the hair and makeup of models, which in turn led to internship opportunities on a few film shoots.

Another student also made an impression on an advisory member who was so impressed with the student’s professional bearing and insightful questions during her presentation that, when the student went into her salon to apply for a position, the advisory member hired her. Years later, that student is still working there. Real-life, project-based learning in CTE helped her achieve that.

The careers we prepare students for can’t be outsourced, and our students often want to stay in their community if they can find employment with wages that will support them. By connecting students to industry professionals and opportunities, CTE programs play a vital role in keeping communities intact.

PBL makes CTE more relevant for students

One of my favorite steps in the project-based learning process is developing essential questions at the very beginning. Students come up with their own questions, and I enjoy seeing them gain confidence as they come to understand that they have total creative license. We’ve helped them gather knowledge and develop understanding, and now they are invited to be a relevant part of the process. It’s just amazing to watch them realize in real time that their voice matters as they turn questions over, dig in deeper and see industry professionals taking those questions seriously.

As they develop the essential question that they will work to solve, their projects become more geared toward real-life experiences and challenges than the ones we might set for them as teachers. Instead of a fun hair color project where they explore different colors or the history of coloring hair, they get to tackle real workplace challenges, like a rebranding effort or overhauling a salon’s existing inventory to adapt to new trends.

When students work on these kinds of projects, they aren’t checking boxes to get a grade; they’re working from more intrinsic motivations. They’ve been trusted to come up with a solution for someone who matters in their industry. Instead of getting abstract test questions right, they are applying the information they’ve learned to a problem that exists. They’re using their expertise to come up with solutions that might actually change the way people work instead of changing trash bags and sweeping a salon floor.

Industry partners benefit too

Project-based learning in CTE also makes participation in our program more relevant for our industry partners. Most directly, they get to hear potential solutions to challenges they face in their own careers and businesses. 

Recently, for example, we had an advisory board member present a product line she was preparing for launch. She had a product for straight hair and another for blowouts, with marketing ready to go for those and more. But once students got their hands on them, they started suggesting alternative uses and ways of mixing and matching them that the advisory member hadn’t anticipated. She walked away with several new marketing ideas from one of her target demographics — and all she had to do was step up to be an educational resource for them. 

PBL redefines the teacher’s role

One big shift in the classroom with the introduction of PBL is the role of the teacher. I’ve become less of an expert who passes down knowledge and more of a facilitator using experience and knowledge to guide students as they explore different ideas and work to solve problems.

There’s so much pressure on teachers to know it all, but no one can be an expert on every single thing in a given field. I have a cosmetology license. I can perform a lot of the tasks on the practical exam, but I wouldn’t consider myself an expert on all of them. There are a few areas that just aren’t my strength.

Project-based learning in CTE makes that OK. It changes my role from being the expert in the room to being the person who invites relevant experts in. I become a facilitator, helping students collaborate effectively and take risks as they work on problem-solving skills within their chosen industry. Those are skills they are going to need as professionals no matter what careers they eventually choose, and being able to model those skills for them is more helpful than being able to answer every question they ever have for me.

I can’t wait to work with other educators to help them apply project-based learning in their own classrooms. I’m excited to help them better tap into local industry professionals, develop student voice and become the best learning facilitators they can be. With PBL, I believe that we are free to facilitate student learning in a way that allows career and technical education to serve the needs of our community into the future, no matter how those needs may change.

Kate Weston is a cosmetology teacher at Ulster Board of Cooperative Education Services, where she will soon become a workplace coordinator. She’ll be attending a professional learning camp as she makes this transition. She can be reached at

Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own. 


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