MT. PLEASANT, S.C. — Juliet Basinger pressed a button on a remote control, and the drone she built did a somersault, first in one direction, then in another, before taking off around the room, cheekily snapping photos of the adults looking on. Juliet won’t finish high school before 2025, but the 11-year-old already has big plans: She wants to be a mechanical engineer.
This year alone, Juliet has used 3D printers, servo motors and microcontrollers to build the parts needed to construct a therapeutic robotic dog that she hopes will help those afraid of canines overcome their fears, a project she did as part of a lesson in her English class. She has learned to use technology-enabled woodcutting tools and is at work creating a virtual tour of her school, Laing Middle School in Charleston County, using another drone she built in the school’s Fab Lab.
A narrow room crammed with high-tech equipment including 3D printers and an electrophoresis chamber to separate molecules and study chromosomes, the Fab Lab gives students at Laing a chance to get hands-on experience with the sorts of tools they might find in the workplace. “I really have fun doing these things,” says the rising seventh grader, “but I also like that it’s preparing me to be an engineer.”
The Fab Lab is one way the Charleston County School District is trying to build career planning into curricula for children at earlier and earlier ages, a trend unfolding in school districts around the country. Having long focused on readying students for college, school systems are beefing up their career-and-technical programs amid a growing push to more closely align the skills students accumulate in school with workforce needs. Now, some school districts are pushing this job exploration into middle and even elementary school, convinced that helping students connect what they are learning to careers will not only deepen their engagement but also help them make more informed decisions about their educational paths.
“In the older days, we told students whether they were college material or not — that’s not appropriate today,” said Tobie Baker Wright, who until May worked as senior program manager at JFF (formerly Jobs for the Future), one of many nonprofits developing classroom plans, tools and strategies to help school districts implement and incorporate career training for younger children. “Good career exploration today is working to develop things in young people — the ability to work as part of a team, the ability to communicate effectively, personal responsibility — that help them have agency in making decisions about careers.”
Baker Wright said this is particularly important for students from lower-income backgrounds, who are less likely to have exposure to well-paying careers or to networks that could provide that exposure. Early training can also have direct financial benefits: If students get on track to earn a certificate or industry-recognized credential before graduating from high school, they may more easily find work to help them pay for college should they choose to attend.
But these nascent efforts to expose younger learners to professional paths face a number of challenges, including getting buy-in from school administrators, competing demands for student and teacher time, and a nationwide shortage of school counselors who might oversee some of this work. There are also concerns that if done poorly, efforts to encourage younger kids to gather work-related skills could exacerbate, rather than ease, racial and socioeconomic inequities and turn schools into vehicles for job readiness instead of runways to a college education, which remains the best pathway to higher pay and a better lifestyle.
In 2018, Congress passed a revamped version of the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Improvement Ac, which allows school districts to spend the federal money made available under the act to implement career education and training programs at the middle school level.
At the state level, Maine passed a law two years ago to expand career-and-technical education to middle schools. And Indiana is piloting an online career exploration tool that it plans to require, eventually, as part of its eighth-grade curriculum statewide. Elsewhere, school districts have forged alliances with community colleges to bring in younger students to explore the credentials needed for various jobs; cultivated ties to local business communities which can provide job shadowing and apprenticeships suitable for middle schoolers and worked to revamp instruction to integrate more career training and exposure.
South Carolina’s Charleston County School District is among the many school districts around the country now working to modify and extend those programs to its middle and elementary schools. “It’s harder to do in middle school because of the academic requirements they have,” said Richard Gordon, executive director of the Charleston school district’s career and technical education program. “But we’re working on it.”
In 2020, the C.E. Williams Middle School, for instance, will move to the campus of West Ashley High School, where the district is building a $50 million Center for Advanced Studies that will open the following year, according to Chadwick Vail, the Work-based Learning Partnerships Coordinator for the Charleston County district. These centers house impressive work spaces — one at Wando High School in Mount Pleasant contains a fully equipped beauty salon that takes appointments, studios for producing radio and T.V. programs and labs to support students interested in engineering — and Gordon plans to maximize their impact by giving middle school students the opportunity to use them. (A third career center will open on the North Charleston campus next year.)
Currently, Williams students have the option of participating in two career preparation programs — robotics, and computing and coding — based on curricula designed by Project Lead the Way. The nonprofit provides STEM-focused career education, research and programming to school districts around the country.
On a recent weekday, J. Patrick Shell, a teacher at Williams, was laying out rubber wheels, wires, motors, sensors and other equipment sixth graders in his next class would use to build simple robots. The class combines mathematics and engineering with lessons in automation, design and modeling. Shell weaves in discussions of history, ethics and ecology. To encourage writing, students must keep an engineering journal where they document their ideas and keep track of their progress.
“We’ve talked about the history of the Mars Rover and space exploration and debated how much freedom a robot should have,” Shell said. “And of course, I get into whether the robot in the end is effective and multi-functional or just something cool but with little utility.”
About 250 of the 625 students at Williams take his robotics class each year, and another 250 opt for Gateway classes in computing and coding. (Some students may take both classes.) “I do believe these classes give them a broader idea of what’s possible as an adult,” Shell said. “So many kids are just not aware of all the options available to them or what’s needed to take advantage of those opportunities.”
Middle schoolers in the Charleston school system use Naviance, software designed to help students, counselors and parents align young people’s plans for college and careers with their strengths and interests. The district’s 10 “career specialists” work with school administrators, teachers and students from elementary, middle and high schools, helping them integrate career and technical education into their studies and introduce students to the skills, certifications and diplomas they will need for various jobs in each of the 15 career clusters the district offers.
The idea is that by eighth grade, when they have the option of selecting a career cluster in which to specialize, students will be more informed about the paths ahead. For instance, eighth graders who took the health science technology program will know, among other things, that to become an emergency medical technician, which pays an average of $32,670 a year in the Charleston region, they need to graduate with a high school diploma and minimum literacy score of 1250, according to district information. If they wish to be a dental assistant, they need an associate’s degree and a literacy level of 1420.
Any discussion of channeling students into career paths tends to raise concerns about tracking, the now-discredited system of assigning students, especially those who were poor and non-white to vocational education that frequently led to dead-end jobs. But Gordon said that students and their families in Charleston County choose which career pathways to pursue, and that supplying them more information at earlier ages will only help them to make smarter decisions. “All we do is provide information to help them make the best decision,” he said.
He and other career planning educators stress that four-year college isn’t the best fit for every student, especially at a time when well-paying jobs in the skilled trades are going begging. By carefully planning their education, students can finish high school with a certificate or even an associate’s degree that will make them immediately employable, Gordon said.
That perspective bothers Kellie O’Quinn, director of the Center for Social Measurement and Research at Children at Risk, a children’s advocacy organization in Houston. “I know college isn’t for everyone, but I think in reality that statement has biased undertones,” O’Quinn said. “Even when we’re trying to do the opposite of tracking, we have to be cautious about implementation and practice.”
O’Quinn said she understands the rationale for introducing career and technical education at younger ages. Her concern is that neither state education departments nor individual school districts are collecting the data needed to determine whether such programs are tracking students at younger and younger ages. Charleston, for example, does not have data that would show, say, whether more African American students opt to study culinary arts or nail tech than white students. “It’s great that we’re trying to get younger children to think about what they might like to do when they grow up,” she said. “But are we also discouraging them from doing the work needed to get into college, which also has to start at an early age.”
Meanwhile, many supporters of career education emphasize that their goal is to expand, rather than limit, students’ options, and that career- and college-readiness often go hand in hand. Having experience with engineering in high school, for example, prepares students for the rigors of a college engineering program. Given how quickly technology is changing the job market, and the likelihood that automation will eliminate some jobs and change the tasks involved in others, they say that students also need to focus on gathering skills that will translate across professions, such as working in teams and solving problems.
“Not only are the jobs changing, but the very landscape they will have to navigate will be changing rapidly,” said Baker Wright, the former JFF program manager. “That’s what career training is about today, giving students skills that will make them more flexible and resilient as workers.”
In Charleston, said Mel Goodwin, a former consultant with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who is now a STEM coach and Fab Lab guru at Laing, “the issue isn’t so much specific training as it is providing exposure to potential career interests before students decide they aren’t interested or commit to something else.”
“It’s unlikely that specific training now will be relevant when our kids graduate, but if we can teach them how to learn technologies and build confidence in their abilities to use them, they will be much better prepared for the workplaces of tomorrow,” Goodwin added.
Other school districts say they present all possibilities to all children. Arizona began a pilot in eight schools this year to introduce middle schoolers and some ninth graders to various career possibilities, according to Cindy Erwin, director for College & Career Pathways at the Center for the Future of Arizona, which is involved in the effort to introduce career training at younger ages. She described a healthcare curriculum for eighth graders, for instance, leads students through each step of what happens after someone is injured and taken to a hospital. Students get hands-on exposure to what it’s like to work in medical jobs including nurse, doctor, emergency medical technician and hospital administrator. They learn to suture using bananas, and navy and lima beans are used to teach the components of blood.
“The kids experience eight to 10 healthcare careers through the duration of the class, taking on the role of young professionals and learning how science, math and other academic classes are used in those jobs,” Erwin said.
Based on the success of the pilot programs, 19 more schools in the state are adopting some or all of the components of the Implementing Possible Futures curriculum in the coming school year, according to Erwin. The curriculum comes to the state through its participation in the Pathways to Prosperity Network, a collaboration of JFF, the Harvard Graduate School of Education and member states and regions.
A few school districts are even testing career-readiness programs at the elementary level. But so far there’s little research on what approaches are most effective for young students.
When Kathleen Koerner, a counselor at A. J. Lindeman Elementary School in Erlanger, Kentucky, was applying for a grant, she was asked to describe the school’s career and technical education program — but it didn’t have one.
So she and a colleague designed a set of lessons called Operation Opportunity, aimed at helping fourth and fifth graders learn what skills and education are needed for various jobs, as well as what it takes to find a job and earn a raise.
At the lessons’ conclusion, Koerner assigned a job with a certain salary to each student, based on the interests they had expressed. She then sent them off to the “Reality Store,” where they used the “money” they had earning in their “job” to pay for a house or rent an apartment, and pay for transportation and other necessities.
During their visit to the store, students encountered various hurdles. Perhaps a student who opted not to buy health insurance would be stricken by the flu. Or a student who chose to buy a car instead of relying on public transportation would get a flat tire. “It’s basically designed to get them to thinking about how an income is used as they go through the store,” Koerner said. “We’re trying to put it into perspective, and it does help them understand why their parents might have said no to buying them a cell phone or something like that.”
At a career fair that capped the week of career exploration, local business executives made presentations about their jobs, and fourth and fifth graders participated in a scavenger hunt to identify 25 skill sets needed for various careers.
An evaluation of the program after the first year found that 100 percent of students said they wanted to go to college after participating in Operation Occupation, compared with 72 percent before. Students said the Reality Store helped them understand the importance of making good financial choices.
“Introducing these concepts in elementary school is critical, in my perspective,” Koerner said. “Kids don’t really understand the underlying trajectories for careers, and that needs to be taught to them in a way they understand.”
But Operation Opportunity is in place at just one of the four elementary schools in the Erlanger/Elsmere School District. Koerner said she was unsure whether other schools, facing time constraints on counselors, would adopt it.
Back at Laing Middle School in South Carolina, Juliet Basinger wished that all students took advantage the opportunity to explore, imagine, experiment and tinker that she has had in the Fab Lab. “I try to tell everyone how interesting and fun it is and how helpful it will be in the future,” Juliet said. “Many people, though, just want to play ball in the gym or hang out outside in their free time.”
This story about career readiness was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.