Transforming the student experience through career education and exploration

Dec 15, 2017
Chris Flanagan

Over the past 8 months, Kinetic Seeds has been working with Jeffrey Selingo, author, Professor of Practice/Special Adviser, Arizona State University, and Visiting Scholar, Georgia Tech’s Center for 21st Century Universities conducting a 4-city journey to discover how to create better pathways from education to the workforce. Traveling to Denver, Atlanta, Philadelphia, and Indianapolis, we facilitated a series of hands-on design-thinking workshops to create new ways of approaching what sometimes seems like an intractable problem within the American education system: failure to prepare students to make sense of career options and connecting what they learn and do in school with what they can or might do after graduation.

The initiative, sponsored by Strada Education Network, and aptly titled Pathways to Prosperity, gathered local, state, and regional education leaders, key business executives, and top policymakers for a day-long series of discussions and activities to rethink the transition from education to career. Following are three big takeaways from the road tour.


Within each city we heard, bar none, the most critical element absent from a student’s education today is career exposure and exploration.  Research links career awareness and childhood self-conceptions together. Yet conversations about careers often don’t begin until a teenager’s junior year. We need to help students learn a process of self-discovery and career exploration earlier in their K-12 years.  Whether it be through career fairs, mini courses, better advising, or a combination of all three, students must gain a better grasp on choices and opportunities ahead of them. With exposure comes confidence and ability to make better-informed decisions, ultimately leading to stronger degree selections, job satisfaction, and happiness.


In Wicomico County Public Schools Maryland, students begin developing self-assessment skills and hone in on personal learning styles, interests, and talents as early as 6th grade. They gain exposure to a range of college and job possibilities before high school and are given the chance to focus and plan for their education and career.

Denver Public Schools Career Connect provides students with engaging, hands on learning in and outside the classroom. In their school-based learning program, which begins in middle school, students can enroll in several different career pathways. Classes become increasingly rigorous and industry-focused each year. Once enrolled, students also have the opportunity to access several work-based learning opportunities through a growing employer network that offers everything from industry consulting to mentoring to paid internships to even a 2-year stackable degree.


Many groups talked about the importance of redefining education through experiential learning with the rationale that traditional education standards do not fully prepare students for today’s workforce and how students are measured should be more than standardized test scores. Learning opportunities and follow-on assessments should also include skills gained through meaningful experiences such as internships, jobs, and gap years which can build those highly coveted problem-solving, critical thinking, communication, and cooperation skills.


The Apprentice School in Newport News, Virginia offers an apprenticeship program as selective as Harvard where students choose from 19 disciples in shipbuilding, offering the chance to earn college credit, receive a salary, and learn a trade. Students graduate debt free and many even go on to earn a bachelor’s or master’s degree.

Arizona State University offers project-based degrees for 11 majors which engage students in hands-on learning experiences in their first year and in subsequent years, learn nearly half of critical subject matter in a series of additional cohort-based projects. Students use new concepts as they learn them and know why they use them. These opportunities also offer students the chance to decide earlier on in their education if they are satisfied with their pathway and education plan, saving them valuable time and money.


Infusing self-directed learning opportunities into formal education has never been more important. Today, as careers and industries expand and contract at an alarming speed, workers simply can not expect that undergraduate or even graduate education will be enough to sustain them over an entire working life. Nor can they expect companies will invest in professional development at the same rate of the past, given the likelihood of regular job and career switches. In this new era, the most important skill education will provide is the ability to learn how to learn—navigating a set of providers that offer education in short spurts, online or in face-to-face classes.  Yet various societal and standardized education pressures have transformed learning into a chore rather than a passion. As one Denver group put it, the “regulatory compliance” that is public education is a huge barrier to innovation. Offering incentives, such as debt reduction or paid internships, and allowing time and chances for students to discover their passions are ways of supporting self-directed and self-motivated learning. As two groups from Denver and Indianapolis suggested, let’s give students their “genius time.”


BridgeEdU is a Baltimore-based “gap year for all” that combines college courses, work, and career exploration for a semester or a year. Partnering with the Community College of Baltimore and Coppin State University, the total price tag is under $8,000. It allows students to complete basic courses without taking a full load, gain meaningful work experience, and develop who they are before moving forward in their education or career pathway.

The Possibility Project is offered by the Oberlin College Career Center in which students participate in a social/emotional learning (SEL) experience, using “the performing arts to examine and address the personal and social forces that shape their lives and identities.” Over the course of the first year, they work in small teams exploring who they are and what they want to do professionally. Not only do they gain self-awareness and compassion, they meet with alumni, begin envisioning their future and their roles within their community, and take action to progress toward their goals.

There is a good deal of complexity, uncertainty and potential disruption inherent in the college to career space. This regional road tour demonstrated that new pathways must be opened up that allow for more students to succeed – pathways that both increase the percentage of students who finish what they start in college or other postsecondary programs, and ensure a smoother transition from education to genuine employment. The biggest foundational resource we need is strong communities with members willing to roll up their sleeves and come together. Thanks to the cities of Denver, Atlanta, Philadelphia and Indianapolis, this new world may be closer than we think.



Creating Better Pathways From Education to the Workforce



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