San Diego high school student Sharon Tamir is spending four weeks of her junior year in Vancouver, Canada, interning at an historic school for girls and delving into the teaching practices surrounding project-based learning.
Her classmate Dayyan Sisson is spending his internship month at Birch Aquarium at UC San Diego’s Scripps Institute of Oceanography. Dayyan will intern as a biotechnology researcher, studying the prehensile tails of seahorses, sea dragons and pipefish to discover lessons that can be derived from the creatures’ natural biology and applied to technological advances in the human sphere. Think advances to fine-tune robotic tentacles used by underwater sea rovers or improve the design of stents, the thin tubes used in medical procedures.
Not too shabby for a couple of high school juniors who haven’t quite yet settled on which college they’d like to attend.
Sharon, 16, and Dayyan, 17, are examples of the power of strong career development programs in schools – an aspect many say is too often missing from campuses or is hampered by a lack of counselors.
But a growing state and national focus on preparing students for college and careers is fueling a refocus on career preparation and shining a spotlight on efforts to foster early career awareness among students. Preparing students for college and careers is a priority of California’s funding formula for schools, the Local Control Funding Formula, and is also a main goal of the Common Core State Standards, adopted by California and 42 other states.
“Fifteen to 20 years ago, we had this huge emphasis on career development and really doing a systematic career development program starting in elementary school,” said Lynn Linde, coordinator of clinical experiences in the school counseling program at Loyola University Maryland and former president of the American Counseling Association. “… That sort of fell out of favor. I’m guessing a lot of that had to do with high-stakes testing. It became very difficult to put anything into a school day that was not part of the accountability program.”
“Now we’re back to doing this again,” Linde said.
Sharon and Dayyan attend High Tech High School in San Diego, a charter high school founded in 2000 that has since grown into a network of 13 schools serving 5,000 students from kindergarten through 12th grade. Introduction to careers is one of the tenets of High Tech High, which was launched by a coalition of business leaders and educators.
Both teens were introduced to career development programs beginning in middle school in the charter network, when Sharon said students were encouraged to start exploring their interests for a class project. “Teachers would say, ‘You better figure out what you are interested in, because you’re going to do a larger project on it,’” she said.
The career introduction intensified in high school. As sophomores, all High Tech High students participate in Inspire Week, where students break into groups of about 20 and explore jobs that interest them and hear presentations from guest speakers. The capstone of the week is a two-day job-shadowing visit that allows students to see careers in action.
As juniors, all students are required to complete a four-week internship to give them a crash course in the work world.
“It’s great to have the opportunity,” said Sharon, whose internship will take her to York House School in Vancouver, a prep school for girls founded in 1932. Through her studies at High Tech High, Sharon has discovered a passion for project-based learning – not necessarily teaching it, but understanding the ideology and practices behind it. The Canadian school is considering implementing more project-based learning in its classrooms, said Sharon said she will work with teachers and administrators to provide insights from a student perspective on how to implement the more hands-on and collaborative learning style.
The internship will help broaden her understanding of the topic, Sharon said, but also give her invaluable practical experience.
“It’s good that we have it, regardless of who you are or where you’re going,” she said. “You’re going to be exposed to a career, you’re going to be more prepared than someone who didn’t have anything.”
Helping students identify where their passions lie is key to helping prepare them for future jobs and correlates to success in school, Linde said. Research has shown that students feel more engaged in school when they are able to see the connection between their studies and real-world applications, such as how what they’re learning in the classroom will benefit them after graduation. Connecting students to real-world experiences is a driving force behind career pathway programs that operate in California high schools. The programs, often referred to as linked learning, combine academics with work experience, and help keep students engaged in their studies.
And with pressure on colleges and universities to reduce the time it takes students to earn their degrees – as well as rising tuition costs – career development becomes a higher priority.
“When we engage kids in thinking about opportunity, it builds a sense of hope and optimism about their future,” said Sue Sawyer, executive director of the Shasta 21st Century Career Connections, which works to promote career readiness in Shasta County schools. “If they have a career goal in mind when they are moving from high school to college, it gives them a reason for why they are continuing their education.”
To help students discover their interests, Sawyer’s group uses a career personality assessment based on the RIASEC Inventory, a popular questionnaire that links personality types to compatible vocational fields. Based on the results, counselors and educators can begin talking to students about potential careers that match their interests. To help students further, the group has created a series of “career ladders” charts that are color-coded to results on the RIASEC Inventory. The resulting easy-to-read diagrams map out potential careers associated with different interest areas and personality types and outline the educational path students will need to follow to pursue that career.
“Kids will use the terminology they associate with something,” Sawyer said. “You’ll hear students say they want to be a veterinarian, but sometimes what they really mean is that they want to work with animals. It helps them explore other possibilities that are related to what they’ve identified as an interest.”
Career inventories can be an effective tool to help students start thinking about their futures, Linde said. A variety of programs are offered online.
The California Department of Education offers a number of career exploration resources through its California Career Resource Network, including the California CareerZone, where students can take a personality assessment and explore jobs and pay levels, and create an estimated household budget.
The recently launched MyVerse website uses a psychometric color test to match students with potential careers based on their color preferences, then shows them videos of workers in that industry, and matches them with potential majors and colleges that offer that major. Site visitors can click through a series of five screens, selecting their “most” favorite and “least” favorite colors from the choices listed. Color tests are based on the work of Swiss psychotherapist Max Lüscher, who believed that personality traits can be linked to one’s favorite color.
High Tech High uses a program called Naviance to help students map out career options and college choices. The program offers personality assessments, allows students to fill out a career interest profile and helps them build resumes. Students can also research colleges that offer majors in their fields of interest.
The programs work best when paired with follow-up from counselors or other educators, Linde said.
“That’s one of the greatest resources I’ve had – being able to talk to someone at school giving me career advice,” said Dayyan, the High Tech High junior who credits Director of College Advising Chris White with providing feedback and direction. “He was able to guide me.”
Dayyan said he always had a strong interest in engineering and arrived at the campus thinking he would pursue that career field. After joining the robotics team and finding it not to his liking, he started pursuing another interest, possibly following his father’s footsteps in the film industry.
But a particularly inspiring biology class helped lure him back to engineering, especially when he discovered he could meld the two fields. The San Diego teen is now considering a career in the biomedical field or biomimicry, which studies the natural world to inspire solutions to common problems or spur technological improvements – like he’ll be doing with the seahorses at Birch over the next few weeks.
“I’m really using this internship experience to better understand what I want to do with the rest of my life,” Dayyan said.