Career Awareness: Start Early, Go Online, Get Work Experience

Blog Series, EdLeaders, EdTech, GenDIY, Leadership, Learner Experience, Online & Blended

Every young person deserves broad exposure to career options starting in middle school. That means access to online resources, good advice, work experiences, career and technical options and maker experiences.

Online Career Education

Connections Education compiled some great interactive online resources for career awareness for elementary and middle school students great for exploring traditional and nontraditional careers:

  1. Drive of your life, an interactive game from the Indiana Youth Institute, lets students custom-design their own car by answering questions about their personal interests, getting a list of careers that match those interests, and then “taking a drive” through each of those careers. Along the way, they meet real people via video working in those careers—learning about daily work life and the skills and education required.
  2. Kidswork, from South Carolina’s public education station ETV, digs a little deeper into the inner workings for a range of careers. Choosing any business in ETV’s cartoon town, students can watch short video interviews with the people who work there; perform related job tasks; and learn some of the history behind various fields.
  3. While maintaining its fun factor, Kidswork is great for connecting classroom skills to real-world jobs in small doses. In this game, your student can use math to fill prescriptions as a pharmacist; practice writing slogans as a public relations specialist; and match electrical circuits as a theatrical lighting designer.
  4. Kids.gov, the US government’s official web portal for kids, provides an A–Z listing and links to more than 50 different career videos as well as interviews, games, and general career information. But watch out! This site is so rich in resources that you and your student could spend hours exploring everything from careers in brain imaging to police dog training.
  5. CareerOneStop, an U.S. Department of Labor site, wins the prize for sheer volume with more than 500 career videos grouped by skills, industry, interest clusters, and educational requirements. Click on the Finance section, for example, and you’ll find links to videos explaining jobs ranging from actuary to teller.

High school students will find the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ information-packed career-exploration pages more useful. Organized by career clusters students will recognize from other career planning exercises, these pages contain salary, employment outlook, working conditions, and education requirements for thousands of job types.

STEM Premier and BrandedEDU offers career advice and postsecondary decision support.

Roadtrip Nation is a good source of information on career awareness and they have a 6-12 curriculum. Roadtrip resources are incorporated into Blackboard Planner, a mobile application designed initially for postsecondary learners; it supports career exploration, internships, and financial planning. Civitas has a similar postsecondary app called Degree Planner.

Role of Advisory & Guidance

A secondary advisory system creates a sustained relationship between a student and an advisor. The goal is typically to help students figure out who they are, where they’re headed and how they’re going to get there. Through an advisory system, each student has an adult who knows them and helps them navigate high school so that they leave with a meaningful, personalized plan and are prepared for postsecondary options. Following are five core elements and 10 optional elements of a great advisory system.

Core Advisory Elements:

  • Weekly academic monitoring, connections to academic support services
  • Connection to youth and family services
  • Support for positive school culture
  • Support for career awareness
  • Support for postsecondary education awareness and decision-making

Optional Advisory Elements:

  • Support social emotional development with learning experiences and feedback
  • Support identification of and preparation for work-based learning
  • Provide support for college applications and dual enrollment options
  • Foster peer learning and team building experiences
  • Support health and wellness learning experiences
  • Teach innovation mindset, including growth, team and maker elements
  • Teach life skills including financial literacy, digital citizenship, and carrying out school routines
  • Prepare for student-led conferences
  • Facilitate cross-curricular project work
  • Involve community partners as guest speakers and local experts

An advisory structure is a key component of a distributed student guidance strategy facilitated by experienced counselors. In the paper Core and More: Guiding and Personalizing College and Career Readiness, we asserted that the best student guidance systems are blended (leveraging technology and in-person instruction and services), distributed (leveraging staff in addition to school counselors), and scheduled (utilizing an advisory period). This advisory period is really the glue that holds it all together. (Listen and read about College Spark Washington, a statewide guidance resource.)

Denver Public Schools provides active support to teachers and students through CareerConnect. Services include career education courses, connections to partner companies for hands-on workplace experiences, and partnerships with higher education institutions. The focus is high-demand skills for and connections to Colorado’s highest-growth, highest-opportunity industries.

Applied & Work-Based Learning

It’s no longer what you know, it’s what you can do that matters. All students in grades 6-14 should have broad and extended work-based learning opportunities. Jobs for the Future outlined best practices in work based learning including assessment and feedback; work experiences that progress from introductory to advanced; mentoring and leadership development opportunities; and a digital portfolio to capture evidence and artifacts.

Projects. In preparation for a project-based world teams of students should struggle with real world problems. Examples include Reynoldsburg capstone super blocks; METSA New Tech capstone, presentations of learning at High Tech High, and intensive, nine-week interdisciplinary courses at NYC iSchool.

Bulldog Tech in San Jose is a remarkable project-based middle school and part of the New Tech Network. Highland Tech Charter School is a 6-12 learning environment that promotes mastery learning through integrated project-based learning (featured on CompetencyWorks).

STEM. Career awareness starts early in Kankakee School District (south of Chicago) where STEM is at the core with lots of real-life application and career exploration through project-based learning.

Harmony Public Schools operates 46 STEM focused project-based schools in Texas and DC. They’ve identified 18 ways to power STEM education through partnerships.

Maker. Creating can get kids excited about careers. There is a growing range of K-12 coding resources, Maker Faire (see Lindsey Own’s 18 part maker series), and DIY activities. Baltimore’s Digital Harbor Foundation is making hands-on learning available after school and during the summer. Project Lead The Way offers applied hands-on STEM learning in engineering, biomedical science, and computer, along with post-secondary credit for students who qualify. FIRST is a great robotics competition.

CTE Academies. GPS Education Partners is a network of manufacturing flex academies in the upper midwest. Career Path High near Salt Lake City is an early college flex high school at an applied technology training center. P-TECH computer science schools in New York, Chicago and Idaho combine high school, work experiences and an associate’s degree, with a good shot at a good job. Wunschue in Houston and CAPS in Kansas City provide great career preparation. Louisiana Course Choice is a great example of a state proactively seeking expanded online CTE courses linked to emerging job clusters.

Global. Applied and work-based learning increasingly includes global awareness and multilingualism. VIF International Education is working with K-12 schools across the U.S., helping them utilize global education practices to equitably prepare all students for success as good global citizens who can effectively share ideas and communicate across cultures in appropriate and respectful ways (see recent paper on global competence).

Charting Your Own Course

As part of our Generation Do It Yourself (GenDIY) series, we’ve posted more than 100 blogs by and about young people charting their own course to a career they love. We learned a few important lessons:

  • It’s up to you: start with an innovation mindset, manage yourself and your time, and use tools, apps and mechanisms to get organized.
  • Focus (it’s not forever) and dig in: figure out what you’re good at, decide what you care about, and find out what the world needs
  • Get work experience: find or create a job, find or create an internship, and build evidence of job skills, gain references.
  • Figure out what to learn: get free/cheap credits/credentials when/where you can; don’t go to college without a focus; and don’t leave college without a degree.
  • Build your brand, use your network: build a positive presence, show what you know, build a network, and get the help you deserve.

Tools and resources can be helpful, but young people need to learn through experiences–especially those prompted and supported by powerful adult relationships.

For more, see high schools worth visiting and:


Stay in-the-know with all things EdTech and innovations in learning by signing up to receive the weekly Smart Update. This post includes mentions of a Getting Smart partner. For a full list of partners, affiliate organizations and all other disclosures, please see our Partner page.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is author of Smart Parents, Smart Cities and Getting Smart. He is co-founder of Getting Smart and Learn Capital and serves on the boards of 4.0 Schools, eduInnovation, Digital Learning Institute, Imagination Foundation, Charter Board Partners and Bloomboard. Follow Tom on Twitter, @tvanderark.

1 Comments

Brian Robben /

The Charting Your Own Course section is right on the money. I’ll forward this to my sister who is a junior in high school, because I know she will get a ton of value from this post. Excellent write up!