Career Focused Projects Help Youth Explore STEM Careers

Veronika, a RAMP participant, is shown with the hydraulic arm she built. As she pulls a water filled hydraulic syringe, the hook hanging from a wooden arm moves toward a soda can she wants to lift.

Veronika, a RAMP participant, demonstrates how to use the hydraulic arm she built as a part of her career-focused project.

It’s never too early for young people to start exploring careers and developing skills they will need to pursue their career goals. In fact, these are two critical components of the Guideposts for Success in the area of Career Preparation and Work-based Learning, which describe what all youth including youth with disabilities need for successful transition to adulthood. Career-focused projects are a great way for youth to explore careers and develop skills at the same time.

Projects are an important tool for career exploration because they give youth hands-on experience relevant to the career being explored. In the process, youth practice and develop skills they need for success in a range of careers. While some knowledge and skills youth develop may be career-specific, many skills often used in projects are transferable such as communication skills, interpersonal skills, planning, decision making, and problem solving. Career projects can be done as a part of school classes, in afterschool programs, in community youth programs, and even at home.

I recently had the opportunity to sit in on career project presentations of several youth who participate in the Ready to Achieve Mentoring Program (RAMP). RAMP is a career focused mentoring program for secondary school students that currently runs in 12 sites across the country and is operated by the Institute for Educational Leadership. RAMP aims to expose youth to science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) and “green” careers. Learning about STEM careers is especially important because more than 75 percent of U.S. jobs in the next decade are expected to require some level of math, science, and technology skills.

The RAMP youth’s presentations were a great showcase of the types of career-focused projects youth can do as a part of career exploration. Take Veronika’s presentation, for example. She built a hydraulic arm as her career-focused project. Veronika, age 14, has been exploring careers in the health care field while participating in the Chemung County Children’s Integrated Services’ RAMP site, which meets each week at her middle school in Elmira, NY. Currently, she is interested in becoming a surgical technologist, an occupation that involves assisting surgeons by setting up and handling various equipment, instruments, and supplies. To become a surgical technologist, Veronika has learned that she needs to pursue a postsecondary certification or associates degree. She’s going to need strong math and science skills for her postsecondary classes; her project on hydraulic systems is helping her develop those skills.

With support from her RAMP mentors – two teachers at her school – Veronika built the hydraulic arm using wood, hydraulic syringes filled with colored water, plastic tubing, glue, and nails. In the process, she learned how to use various equipment and tools in her school’s industrial arts classroom, including the band saw and electric sander. The end project was a hydraulic arm that can pick up and move small items. She demonstrated her arm by positioning it to hook and move an empty soda can. Veronika shared that as a result of her project she has learned that we use hydraulics everyday in various ways, such as in automobile brake systems and dentist and barber chairs. Hydraulics are also commonly used in medical equipment, including surgical tables.

Roy, age 12, created his own video game. Roy is a participant in the RAMP site at Families Together in Albany County (NY). RAMP matched Roy with a mentor, Mike, who works in a career field that interests Roy. Mike works for Bat Country Entertainment, a software firm that develops video games. With Mike’s help, Roy learned how to use GameMaker, a video game creation software (a basic version is available free online) to bring his own adventure stories to life.

Roy chose to create an obstacle course game with two levels. Mike guided Roy through the process of creating his adventure story by brainstorming different ideas for characters and the plotline. As well as learning the steps and skills involved in creating a story and using software to build a video game, Roy learned that repeatedly testing the game and fixing bugs is a critical part of the job.

While some of the projects completed by RAMP youth were done individually, others were completed in groups. Diamond, age 17, presented on the group project she completed with a team of youth at Humanim’s RAMP site in Baltimore, MD. Diamond’s group chose careers in the energy sector as the focus of their project.

Diamond, a RAMP participant, speaks into a microphone as she presents on her group's career-focused project.

Diamond, a RAMP participant, presents on her group's career-focused project.

As a part of their project, they visited the local power company, Baltimore Gas and Electric (BGE), to learn about a variety of career opportunities. During their visit, they learned how the company uses different sources of energy, including solar energy. In fact, BGE’s call center is entirely powered by solar energy panels. While they were onsite at BGE, youth sat in with BGE call center staff to observe how they handle customer calls. From this experience, youth gained new insights on what knowledge and job skills are needed for careers in the energy sector. As one youth explained, “I learned that one of the main employment qualifications is a positive attitude.”

To bring their career research to life, the group built their own solar-powered radio. In her presentation, Diamond explained the supplies and steps involved: 1) order a 4.5 volt and 100 amp solar energy panel; 2) purchase one battery-operated radio with the same or less amps then the panel; 3) connect the positive and the negative wires from the solar panel to the positive and negative diodes on the radio; and 4) make sure the panel is receiving sunlight.

Presenting their projects to a group was yet another way that the youth practiced skills they need for job success. Each youth that presented learned how to prepare and give a PowerPoint presentation and honed their public speaking skills.

The most successful career-focused projects are ones that are both highly youth driven and employer supported. Youth service professionals, teachers, and family members can help youth to identify their career interests (learn more about tools) and then identify what local employers align with those interests (Community resource mapping, also called youth mapping, is a great strategy for this). Projects should be challenging but accomplishable within an appropriate timeframe. Once a potential project has been identified, youth and adults can approach local employers to find one or more expert advisors to help plan and complete the project, all the while further exposing youth to a specific industry or career track.

The benefits of career-focused projects are maximized when combined with other valuable career preparation and work-based learning opportunities including career interest inventories, workplace site visits, and work experiences. To learn more about these and other strategies to develop youth’s career readiness, see NCWD/Youth’s publication, High School/High Tech Program Guide: A Comprehensive Transition Program Promoting Careers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math for Youth with Disabilities.

Related Resources

By Mindy Larson, Senior Program Associate, with the National Collaborative on Workforce & Disability for Youth at the Institute for Educational Leadership Center for Workforce Development.

About NCWD Youth

NCWD/Youth works to ensure that transition age youth are provided full access to high quality services in integrated settings to gain education, employment, and independent living.
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