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8 agosto 2022

When nature becomes a classroom and the earth becomes books for Vocational Training students

The San Gabriel school in Zuera, Zaragoza, incorporates techniques such as the 'flipped classroom' into its study method. Every year, some 80 students take their training courses related to the environment.

Put books aside and learn by experimenting. This is, in a nutshell, the essence of the San Gabriel School in Zuera. This center, which trains more than 500 students each year, has a 64-hectare plot of land where students can do practical work and verify that what they are taught in the classroom is real. This is of particular interest to vocational training students.

Specifically, two vocational training courses are taught every year in San Gabriel: ‘Technician in exploitation and conservation of the natural environment’ and ‘Higher technician in forestry and natural environment management’. These two-year courses are ideal for nature lovers. “At first many people hesitate, they don’t know if they are going to like it, and then they all end up loving it,” says the director of the courses, Sandra Cuende.

The job opportunities offered by these courses are varied. They range from forest guards to fire foremen or nature protection agents. Every year, 40 students leave the classrooms at the San Gabriel school, diploma in hand, and are immersed in the labor market. “It’s a sector with a lot of demand, more and more, because there is a lot of investment in the environment and there is a lack of manpower. Seventy percent of the people who do internships in private companies stay on to work,” says Cuende, who gives as an example that to control an average fire requires one foreman and twenty laborers. “There is a need for professionally trained labor,” he insists. Although there is also the possibility of continuing the educational stage and studying a university degree, such as biology, environmental sciences or agricultural engineering.

And as wide as the range of possibilities offered by these training programs is, so is the profile of the student body. At present, students from 16 to 43 years of age are enrolled in the Vocational Training courses. Most of them come from Zaragoza or neighboring towns in Huesca. But neither age nor distance is a problem for these students thanks to the ‘flipped classroom’ methodology, which consists of prioritizing classroom practice and leaving theory at home. “We upload the theoretical content to a platform, with explanatory videos, which they can watch at work or at home. Every day in class we ask if there are any questions, and if there aren’t, we can go directly to practice,” explains the director of the cycles.

In fact, the San Grabriel school in Zuera is the first ‘flipped classroom’ school in Spain. “It is a model that facilitates the individualized accompaniment of students,” says the school principal, Sofía Temprado, who also emphasizes that it is a bilingual school with a high digital capacity. “People are surprised at the level of the kids when we go out. Especially when it comes to speaking, we emphasize the vocal part and we start to focus on grammar from the third year of primary school onwards”, she explains.

The only thing that Cuende and Temprado miss in the vocational training degrees at this school are women. This year there is only one girl enrolled in the intermediate and higher cycles. A figure which, according to Sandra Cuende, “is not normal”. There are usually about four women per class. “The girls who sign up are usually the best in the class. They can also work as laborers or foremen. We have never encountered women being displaced in this sector,” she says. In the director’s opinion, the shortage of female students in these degrees is due to misinformation: “It has always been taught that the mountains are for boys, but that is not the case. There is still a long way to go. As a curious fact, at the San Gabriel School in Zuera, four-fifths of the teachers who teach these cycles are women.

Nurseries, classes aboard a tractor or with a chainsaw.

In addition to putting out fires, these degrees enable them to work in the forestry sector or in crop plantations. Among them, the truffle. And it is in these areas that the school’s students make the most of the 64 hectares that make up the facilities. They have trees to cut, crops to replant, nurseries to work in and even land to learn to drive a tractor under supervision. “We usually dedicate 60 to 70% of the classes outdoors with hands-on practice. In the end, it’s easier to understand a subject when you see it live,” says Cuende. This way, the kids realize that the theory is of use to them. “In the book they tell you about the perfect terrain, but then when you go to cut the tree, for example, you see that it’s not straight,” he explains. And all that experience is valued when it comes to finding a job. In the words of the cycle director: “The companies are usually delighted”.

The more creative side of the field in Tik Tok

The San Gabriel school seeks to adapt to changing times and to take advantage of the interests of its students to transmit more and more knowledge about nature. For this reason, one of the activities that completed the educational curriculum this year was to make a Tik Tok video. “I had them record themselves making a type of short film and they had to present it to me in Tik Tok. It was part of the practice I was going to evaluate them on. In the end, it’s exactly the same, but it’s funnier,” Cuende says. Through this platform, the students not only practice the cuts but also develop other issues such as creativity and the use of new technologies. “They have some impressive ideas,” says the director, concluding that the forestry sector “is not just about cutting wood”.

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