Putting Students in the Driver’s Seat: Leveraging Student Agency in Career Exploration


Putting Students in the Driver’s Seat: Leveraging Student Agency in Career Exploration

December 9, 2021

Gen Z is a unique generation, and it’s important to take a step back and reflect on what exactly they want with regard to career exploration — and how to best help them get there. Our research shows that middle school is the prime time to start this conversation, as students at this age are less stressed out than they will be in high school and are therefore more open to beginning that exploration stage.

I recently moderated a panel session at AMLE ‘21 which focused on the idea of putting students in the driver’s seat and granting them more agency in the career exploration process. The discussion featured insights from STEM teacher Vanessa Haerle of Sutton Middle School; Julie DiPilato, a Science teacher at Barnstable Intermediate School; and Debra Hoffer, President of Junior Achievement Kentuckiana. All of these professionals are esteemed leaders in middle school career exploration, and are featured in ASA and AMLE’s Career Exploration in the Middle Grades: A Playbook for Educators.

To start the conversation, we looked at ASA’s comprehensive research on Gen Z and the six major emerging themes that can help us optimize the exploration stage:

  1. Students get information about potential career paths from social media, but many also say they’re getting that information at school.
  2. While Gen Z wants to do their own research on career paths and come forward with ideas, 73% of those we surveyed say they also seek validation from adults that their paths of interest are worth pursuing.
  3. Middle school is a time of independence. Students at this age are relying heavily on their peers and social media to get information, but also lean on their teachers and other adult figures outside of their families to receive guidance and validation on future paths. Parents become less influential at this age.
  4. Gen Z places significant emphasis on social causes. Nine out of ten students surveyed indicated at least one cause they were passionate about.
  5. This generation has an affinity for entrepreneurship. They want to be happy, and largely associate happiness with working in areas they care about and having financial stability.
  6. Video games are highly important to Gen Z, and can and should be leveraged as tools to teach 21st-century skills.

Debra Hoffer of Junior Achievement Kentuckiana, an organization that’s part of a national network with a strategy to reach K-12 students with experiential and/or activity-based programs, was the first to offer her thoughts and best practices:

  • JA Inspire, which Debra described as a “mega-career fair” with exhibitors and mentors representing jobs across industries, gives students real-life information about careers to help them in their planning. Coming out of this event, students are then granted the agency to choose classes that fit their desired paths, setting them up for success by placing greater focus on their interests as they prepare to enter high school.
  • Prior to this event, students need preparation from their teachers. That pre-event prep is crucial to allow them to take full advantage of the opportunity. As part of this, students take the ASA Futurescape Career Assessment and use their results to select jobs and exhibits in the areas that best fit their interests. “It is the most amazing career-interest assessment that I’ve ever seen,” Debra says.
  • Teachers then facilitate follow-up discussions with the students to see what they got out of the event, and suggest that students post artifacts outlining career interests in their virtual backpacks.

Vanessa Haerle from Sutton Middle School in Sutton, MA was next to offer her insights on what’s worked in her school:

  • In Vanessa’s school district, they established a committee to determine how to maximize student output. One of the primary things they found, she says, was the need to give students more choice by allowing them to select electives in middle school. Rather than rotating through Gym, Music, Art, and STEM Engineering, as they’d previously done, they came up with a number of 45-day “mini-electives” from which students could choose.
  • For Vanessa’s classes, those options include 3D Modeling and Printing, Sports Engineering, and Helper Engineering. These classes offered students the chance to do real, hands-on engineering work that allowed them to tap into interests and passions while uncovering new skills.
  • The pandemic presented challenges to holding these courses, so they developed an alternative Product Development class where students built prototypes and developed marketing plans for their unique products before delivering their final, “Shark Tank”-style sales pitches.

Lastly, Julie DiPilato of Barnstable Intermediate School (BIS) in Hyannis, MA explained how she has helped to lead the charge in bringing career exploration to classrooms:

  • The first step, Julie says, was creating a continuous experience for grades 6-12 so that students were exposed to the same language and methods of thinking from middle school throughout high school. This also allows for the high school students to effectively become mentors for the middle schoolers, which is important due to Gen Z’s affinity for learning from their peers.
  • BIS provides nine career exploration pathways to its students, giving them choice in what they want to learn about.
  • According to Julie, an important thing to note is that they’re “not looking for middle school students to pick careers. We want them to just be themselves and share their skills, passions, and talents.”

This session illuminated how some of the brightest leaders in education are taking the steps to bring career exploration to middle school through creative, hands-on programming. In ASA’s research, we’ve learned that students who have access to career exploration outperform those who don’t in a number of areas, and generally have higher classroom engagement — which is especially important as we begin to emerge from a pandemic that saw dips in engagement for many K-12 students.

Thank you for reading! We’d love to hear your thoughts on middle school career exploration. Have you seen any similar programs in your area?

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