BANGOR, Maine — They started in the robotics engineering room and moved on to automotives, then computer sciences, then culinary arts.
Newly minted Maine Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen said he was impressed at every turn Thursday at the United Technologies Center.
“You go in one room, they’re doing this, and you go in another room, it’s automotive,” he said. “You go in another room and it’s computers, another room it’s small engines, health care, food service. It’s remarkable the variety of things going on inside this building.”
Bowen, who was confirmed by the Legislature only two weeks ago, took his “listening tour” to Bangor on Thursday to visit with students and staff at UTC. He plans to spend his first 100 days as commissioner meeting with students and educators from Kittery to Fort Kent.
Guided by UTC Director Fred Woodman, Bowen walked past cars on hydraulic lifts, past students using joysticks to control simulated bucket leaders and past yet others in a crowded commercial kitchen preparing his lunch.
The new commissioner, who visited three schools in western Maine on Tuesday and plans to spend next Monday at schools in Hancock County, said he has no intention of sitting behind his new desk all the time in Augusta.
“I want to get a sense of what’s really going on,” he said. “There is concern that the [education] department is not as connected as it should be. What I’m finding already is that many people have the same kinds of concerns about things like funding and bureaucracy.”
Bowen said skills offered through courses at vocational and trade schools such as UTC have been pushed to the back burner in recent years, something he plans to change as education commissioner for Gov. Paul LePage.
“The governor is an outcome-oriented guy,” Bowen said. “These students are coming out with skills that they will put to use in months.”
UTC’s mission fits in well with one of LePage’s top education initiatives: creating a five-year high school program where students can graduate with both a high school diploma and an associate degree. LePage talked about that idea extensively during his campaign last fall but no specific initiative has been launched since he took office.
As with anything in Augusta at the moment, Bowen said much of what he does could depend on funding.
Formerly with the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a Portland-based conservative think tank, Bowen was a public school teacher in Camden-Rockport for five years but does not have administrative education experience.
After touring UTC on Thursday, Bowen met with superintendents from Penobscot and Piscataquis counties to talk about their concerns and ideas. That session was closed to the news media.
“They wanted to be able to have a candid conversation with the commissioner,” Department of Education spokesman David Connerty-Marin explained.
More dates for Bowen’s listening tour will be announced soon on the department’s website: http://www.maine.gov/education/commissioner/listening-tour/