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Putting Skills in Context:
How Academic Skills are Transformed at Work

Educators and school reformers are updating curricula and redesigning school programs at all levels to ensure that, in addition to academics, young people have opportunities to learn work-related skills and attitudes. Refor-mers also increasingly perceive that all students, not just those who traditionally enroll in vocational programs, can benefit from approaches that change both the content and process of learning. But many questions remain about the particular mix of skills that will be most rewarding to high school students and the best ways of teaching them.

One way to investigate the repertoire of skills workers should bring to their jobs is to study how workers actually do them, the social and physical situations they work within, and the range of skills they draw on to perform everyday tasks.

Two case studies from a situative study of workplace skills are described below (Stasz, Ramsey, Eden, Melamid, & Kaganoff, 1996; Stasz & Brewer, 1999). Although only half of the case studies are included here in narrative detail, findings from all four firms and all seven of the job categories that researchers observed will be discussed in this report. The researchers who conducted this study gathered data from observations, interviews, and documents collected at the sites.

Worksite Observation #1: Building a Transportation System
There may well be no more important public project in Los Angeles than the construction of a new subway system that will, over the next 30 years, cost an estimated $180 billion. Any project the size, scope, and complexity of the Los Angeles subway system requires meticulous planning and substantial oversight. Planning is the responsibility of a regional Transportation Agency, but three international construction firms are responsible for building the system. Between the agency and the contractors sit the project's contract managers: engineering firms assigned to individual "lines" of the system that must ensure that the construction firms and subcontractors build the subway in strict accord with requirements. On a day-to-day basis, quality assurance work on the subway falls to onsite construction inspectors and survey crews.

At one site, a survey crew is checking the construction of the "Orange Line," an elevated and surface-level rail line that will serve residents living south and east of downtown Los Angeles. It is almost finished--tracks have been laid, staircases installed, electrical hookups completed. On this day, a three-person crew begins its work with a visual inspection along the length of the track.

Once the crew's check is complete, they head to their van where the chief completes calculations that will enable them to perform a final quality control check for the line. The van, an "office on wheels," seats four and is furnished with a makeshift drafting table. Blueprints and maps cover a plywood shelf. In back, the van is piled high with equipment and tool boxes.

The crew chief sits at the drafting table, reviewing plans for the station and filling in a series of "elevation sheets" that show the position the track is supposed to have according to specifications. To determine these positions, the chief must use his "most important tool"--a hand calculator he has programmed to determine the placement of the rails to a one-eighth-inch tolerance, even when they have turns and subtle twists. These twists mean that the rails form a parabola, though the shape may not be visible to the naked eye. Without them, the trains would not be able to negotiate turns safely.

The track's position is measured in relation to "control points" set at a number of fixed locations. In addition to the twists, this site is complicated because the rails sit on elevated platforms more than 40 feet high. Consequently, the setting requires a series of calculations that check the rails' placement from three control points on the ground beginning at the nearest traffic intersection and then moving up to the elevated rail line. The chief comments that such sites and calculations force surveyors to develop an "algebraic mind" and the ability to place objects from two-dimensional maps and drawings into the three-dimensional world. While the chief works on the calculations, the two other crew members unload equipment for the day's work.

Today, survey crews use electronic equipment to do their work. The main tool is an electronic distance measurement (EDM) machine, commonly called a "gun." Mounted on a tripod, the EDM contains sophisticated electronic systems and a laser, permitting immediate calculation of elevations and distances for objects that are "shot" by the operator. The "gun" must be placed in a precise location in relation to control points. Measurements are made in relation to a "traverse line"--a straight line between two control points. The second element in the survey equipment is the "back site," a reflective prism sitting atop a tripod over the second point on the traverse line that provides the base off which any objects within the 500-foot range of the EDM machine can be precisely measured. Measurements are made using the third element in the system--a "linker rod" that is placed on the object to be measured and then sighted through the EDM's viewfinder. The laser in the EDM bounces off the rod and back, where the EDM's electronics calculate the distance to the object. The crew compares these measurements to the chief's calculations to determine if the rails are in proper position. Measurements outside of tolerance mean the contractor must correct the problem.

The crew moves to the elevated station; each member assumes his position. The "chain man" uses a "plumb bob" to set the back site directly above a "PK" nail that has been driven into the concrete rail bed at a control point. The "instrument man" does the same with the EDM machine. Once the EDM is in place, the chief calls to the chain man over a walkie-talkie, directing him to the first measurement point. The chain man places the base of the linker rod on the marked spot, pulls a level from his tool belt, and checks that the rod is directly perpendicular to the spot. When the chain man calls "mark" over the radio, the instrument man tells the chief what the reading is. The chief marks the reading down and enters any variation from specifications in the elevation sheet. When the chief is satisfied, he orders the chain man to move to the next point, and they repeat the process until the 500-foot section of track on both rail lines has been checked.

Worksite Observation #2: Caring for Patients at Home
Wearing a white coat, an ID badge, and a stethoscope, Irene Simmons walks up to the door on the first floor of a small apartment building and rings the bell. After a few moments, a frail voice calls, "Irene, is that you?" A man in his late sixties opens the door. As a Licensed Vocational Nurse (LVN) working for a home health care agency, Irene has visited this patient once or twice a week since his discharge from the hospital two months ago. This patient is the first of five she will visit this day.

The patient has been diagnosed with end-stage AIDS. His home is cluttered, somewhat dark and stuffy. Near his bed in the living room sit a number of small tables piled high with pill boxes, tissue dispensers, blankets, and medical supplies. A television plays loudly in the corner. Although quite coherent, he is clearly fragile and ailing.

Irene's primary purpose is to monitor his condition. She begins by asking him a series of questions about his appetite, drinking, bowel movements, urination, and sleeping patterns. She helps him over to a scale and supports him as he steps up so he will not lose his balance. She compliments him on continuing to gain weight--his inability to do so previously is the primary reason the nursing case manager scheduled regular visits. Irene also uses a blood pressure cuff to check the patient's blood pressure, makes certain that his pill boxes are filled for each day over the next two weeks, and tells him that she is sorry to see an ashtray filled with cigarette butts in his living room--smoking is very bad for a person in his condition. After washing her hands, Irene thanks the patient and reminds him that she will be returning early next week.

Sue Perkins, a home health aide from the agency, greets Irene at the door of the next home. Sue arrived ten minutes earlier to bathe the patient, a woman in her early seventies. Irene notes that it is not uncommon for her to run into other members of the "treatment team" who work with these patients. When a patient is referred to the home care agency, a registered nurse (RN) conducts an assessment to identify which services will be provided to each patient. A single patient may have four or more service providers, including RNs, LVNs, home health aides, social workers, and physical, occupational, or speech therapists.

Sue helps the patient into the bathroom. The woman has very pronounced surgical scars on her chest, and has just had her left leg amputated below the knee. After placing a bath bench in the shower and testing its stability, Sue turns the water on and warms the seat. The patient moves next to the bench and, with Sue's assistance, lifts herself out of a chair and onto the bench. In the shower, she leads the woman through a series of range-of-motion exercises and checks her thoroughly for any marks or redness on her skin that may indicate injury or even abuse. A part of Sue's job is to report any new marks to the case supervisor. After helping the patient dress, Sue says good-bye and leaves.

Irene moves quickly through her check-up, asking the routine questions and checking the patient's blood pressure. She draws a small blood sample, which will be tested by the agency lab to ensure that the patient's medication is appropriate. After checking the patient's pill box, Irene says good-bye and departs, heading to a third patient's house just a few blocks away.


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