Special Report
College & Workforce Readiness

Want to Motivate Students? Give Them a Meaningful Taste of the Working World

By Alyson Klein — February 21, 2023 7 min read
A nurse supervises a young student standing at the foot of a hospital bed chatting about the medical chart that she is holding.
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Watching a medical professional remove bedbugs from a patient’s body isn’t most people’s ideal afternoon.

But it was a highlight of Morgan Pipkin’s summer internship at a walk-in medical clinic.

Pipkin, 18, like more than 40 other rising juniors in Mississippi’s New Albany school district, received $8.50 an hour for 100 hours of work at her internship, which was built on top of a high school course. But she got much more than money out of the program: The experience helped confirm her longtime hunch that she’d enjoy a career in nursing.

New Albany’s internship program—which about a third of juniors participate in—represents the culmination of a districtwide push to get students envisioning themselves in the workplace. It starts in elementary school, where students might dress up as a person working in a career that interests them, and continues in middle school, with field trips to nearby employers.

The internship experience has been “life changing” for some of the district’s students, particularly those who come from low-income families, said Beth Benson, New Albany’s workforce and development coordinator and career coach.

“A lot of these kids don’t have parents who went to college or don’t even have parents who go to work every day,” Benson said. “They’ve never seen what it is like to go into work every day and make money for your family and feel a sense of fulfillment.”

The district has had a range of placements. Wannabe engineers have interned with a nearby branch of the Army Corps of Engineers. And one student intrigued by social media marketing put what he learned at his internship to almost immediate use. He started his own company and now helps raise the social profile of people in the music industry, all without having to move out of New Albany.

Students can ‘see for themselves’ why school matters

Arranging for so many students to get paid for a work-based learning experience—as New Albany has done—isn’t typical.

But career exploration in general has become a common high school mission. Districts around the country offer students a choice of pathways to focus their education around: from communication, to public leadership, to agricultural engineering, to computer science, to artificial intelligence.

Educators like New Albany’s superintendent, Lance Evans, who first envisioned the internship program, rattle off the benefits of the approach. Students can check out a field before spending tens of thousands of dollars in college tuition on a degree in something that’s not right for them. They may be exposed to work in an area they never would have considered. Local businesses can find employees who have been learning on the job since their teenage years. School becomes more relevant.

“They begin to see, ‘well, this is why I have to take these courses,’” Evans said. “‘This is why I have to go through this process.’”

Getting students excited about and invested in their classes is reason enough on its own to go big on work-based learning, experts say.

“At a high level, workplace learning is an even better opportunity than in-class learning to start thinking about the real-world” applications of skills like problem solving and communication, said Charlotte Cahill, a senior director at Jobs for the Future, a nonprofit that concentrates on education and workforce alignment.

“It’s one thing for your teacher to tell you something,” Cahill said. “It’s another thing to see it for yourself. Work-based learning gives students an opportunity to make those connections for themselves in a way that can be really engaging.”

Educators appear to agree.

When asked for the most effective strategies for jump starting students’ motivation, more than half of educators—54 percent—cited hands-on opportunities, including internships, according to a survey of 1,058 teachers, principals, and district leaders conducted in late January and early February by the EdWeek Research Center, making it the most popular answer. The second most popular response, chosen by 45 percent of educators? Showing students how they can use what they learn in future careers.

Dog surgeries, new babies, and learning to tattoo

Students may be even bigger believers in career exploration as an engagement tool than their teachers and school leaders. An overwhelming majority—87 percent—of students said that they feel more motivated in class when they see a direct connection between what they are learning and the skills they would use in a job or career, according to a separate EdWeek Research Center survey of 1,011 teenagers in late December and early January.

What’s more, 70 percent of teens surveyed who had some experience with career-and-technical education classes said they found them more engaging and relevant than their other courses.

In New Albany, even students who don’t opt for the district’s 100-hour internship receive some work-based learning. For instance, every junior is allowed the chance to spend at least one day shadowing a professional working in a field they are interested in.

That relatively short stint has yielded some eye-opening experiences, Benson said. A would-be labor and delivery nurse watched four babies come into the world. A student interested in working in a veterinary practice witnessed half a dozen dog surgeries. And a prospective tattoo artist got to practice on fake skin.

There are other kinds of success stories. One 11th grader who was “gung-ho” about the idea of becoming a social worker changed her mind after just one day shadowing staff at a local agency, Benson said. That was a win in Benson’s book because now the student won’t spend four years of college majoring in a field just to find out it’s not a fit.

Benson has also seen the internships invigorate students who aren’t especially invested in academics. One student “wouldn’t pay a lick of attention to what I was saying” in class, she recalled, because he was too busy watching videos of machines moving dirt on his tablet.

Benson promised to get him an internship in excavation if he could pass her career readiness class—a prerequisite for the internship—and achieve the minimum 2.0 GPA required.

After that, he “changed his tune,” Benson recalled. “He put his iPad up and did what he was supposed to do.” The student ended up loving his excavation internship, and the company hired him to do more work after it ended.

‘Do they need a fifth day of Shakespeare?’

Several states away from New Albany, in Nebraska’s 311-student Bancroft-Rosalie district near the Omaha American Indian reservation, Superintendent Jon Cerny is using work-based learning to cure senioritis.

Students tend to want 12th grade to be the closest thing possible to a year off—the easiest classes, the minimum requirements, Cerny said.

But over the past several years, the district’s high school students have been allowed to use at least part of every Friday for job shadows, internships, and other hands-on learning opportunities. Students can also opt to take college courses for credit either at the local community college or online.

Their choices don’t break down into the predictable patterns. Some students who aren’t sure higher education is for them are sampling the college classes, while many college-bound kids opt for an internship.

“It helps me get through the week knowing that I have something on Friday that I love to do,” said Isabella Bonneau, 18, a senior doing a job shadow in a rehabilitation clinic. “I do feel a lot more motivated to do better in my classes, just because I know they’re setting me up for [my] future.”

See also

Stephanie Miller-Henderson, 42, looks at 11-year-old Christopher Lockhart’s laptop while teaching a sixth grade class how their grades are calculated during a Success Bound lesson at John M. Smyth School on Monday, Dec. 12, 2022 in Chicago, Ill. Success Bound aims to teach middle school students skills they will need in high school and beyond.
School counselor Stephanie Miller-Henderson looks at 11-year-old Christopher Lockhart’s laptop while teaching a 6th grade lesson on calculating grades at John M. Smyth School on Dec. 12 in Chicago.
Taylor Glascock for Education Week

Offering these experiences has meant condensing some academic courses into four days. But Cerny is convinced that shadowing a physical therapist or working in a local welding shop is a better hook for many of his students than more time in a traditional classroom.

“Do they need a fifth day of Shakespeare?” he asked. Cerny thinks that students might learn just as much or more by putting the communication skills they have mastered in their language arts classes to use in an internship.

Some of Cerny’s students say their internships and job-shadowing opportunities have given them a window into how what they are learning in class will matter down the line.

“Geometry helped me,” said Hunter Carpenter, a senior who is interning as a welder for a local business. Before the class, “I didn’t know what the Pythagorean theorem was. Now it turns out I use it just about every day.”

Cerny is so convinced of the power of these professional experiences that he and his staff are working to find the best possible matches between work experiences and students’ interests, despite major geographic hurdles. The district is what Cerny describes as a rural bedroom community. Fremont, Neb., a city with about 27,000 people and more opportunities for work-based learning, is about an hour away.

That’s made it hard for Cerny and his team to find potential worksites for fields such as culinary arts. Budding chefs could intern in the mini mart or at a local bar, neither of which offers the kind of experience the district has in mind. Larger establishments mean a significant drive.

But giving students work-based experience is worth finding ways around those types of challenges, Cerny said.

“We’ve gotta get kids into places where they have ownership … a choice about how [they] want to spend [their] day,” Cerny said. “The more that we can do that, the more motivated and engaged they are going to be.”

Coverage of whole-child approaches to learning is supported in part by a grant from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, at www.chanzuckerberg.com. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the March 01, 2023 edition of Education Week as Want to Motivate Students? Give Them a Meaningful Taste Of the Working World

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