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Discovering the ‘why’ of career exploration

STEAM projects seed talent profiles that will build through graduation

Northview — Mia Ortiz could not contain her excitement in STEAM class recently, just knowing she was about to hold the 3D model of a shoe she had designed and created herself.

“This is my favorite class, because I’m an art person,” the Highlands Middle School sixth-grader told a visitor, beaming as she held a palm-size stiletto pump she dreamed up based on a real-life pair that reportedly cost $17 million.

And while Mia declares herself an art person, she said her favorite parts of the process were the online 3D modeling and making a video describing her work — in other words, being exposed to the S-T-E-M elements of the project has uncovered even more potential passions.

“We want students to learn that there’s a multitude of avenues they can pursue,” Highlands Principal Jamey Vermaat said. “Providing them with these hands-on experiences is remarkable.”

Confidence, Curiosity, Awareness

Highlands STEAM students this year are exploring not only the hands-on possibilities of combined science, technology, engineering, art and math lessons, but they are also building confidence, curiosity and awareness of potential career paths.

The project, called Grow MainStreet, was developed by Mavin Project and Northview staff in partnership with Google, the U.S. Department of Education, and businesses and universities. Northview is one of the first districts in the country to launch the free online platform; Crossroads Middle plans to add a module this year as well. 

“I think (teachers) have something in their hands with this that they’ve never had before, that brings relevance to their academic standards and that engages them.’

— John Kraus, project director for the Mavin consortium of school districts

Mavin Project is a Midwest-based education and workforce company. It was founded in 2010 by former executives in management consulting, education, and product and workforce development. It is aimed at connecting many of the dots between student learning, career awareness and the development of soft skills that can help students find high-quality jobs.

Every student created a detailed measurement spreadsheet

Highlands social worker Allison Dykhouse coordinates the program at that building with STEAM teacher Alyssa Medina. 

“The ‘why’ of career exploration, we didn’t have that when I was growing up,” Dykhouse said. “I only knew of doctors, teachers, lawyers (and) social workers, so when I talk to students, I tell them, ‘Look at things around the room you’re in right now. Somebody thought of that. Somebody designed that. Somebody made that. All those are jobs.’”

Grow MainStreet, she said, helps students “understand that there are more opportunities out there that they don’t even know about. The greatest aspect is that they’re learning there are all these careers and trades they can actually do. That’s what I have loved, seeing their brains just go.”

Semester-long, Real-life Learning

All 422 fifth- and sixth-graders at Highlands are participating in Grow MainStreet this year. The nine-week units are 40 minutes per school day.

One semester is a study of the fashion and apparel industry, by way of a language many students speak: athletic shoes. They conduct market research, personalize their own shoe design using 3D CAD software and a 3D printer, learn about educational programs and jobs that use those same technologies and skills and create a digital talent profile for themselves that can be added to and shared.

‘That’s what I have loved, seeing their brains just go.’

— Allison Dykhouse, Highlands Middle social worker

During another semester, students learn about the food supply chain from farm to fridge, and how businesses use technology to protect communities from food shortages and spoilage. Each student designs and creates a 3D custom case for a temperature sensor, builds an ‘internet of things’ sensor that remotely monitors and reports temperature, connects their device and sends data to the Google Cloud, just as real businesses do.

As with fashion and apparel, students will learn about educational programs and jobs that use the same food supply chain technologies and skills, and add their work to their digital talent profile. 

The program does not involve any testing; each student’s talent profile in the Mavin platform is the proof of their effort and abilities.

Watch Highlands Middle School’s 14 3D printers as they create scale models of student-designed shoes, then see students record videos to explain their work

Strong Social-Emotional Element

Medina teaches from the platform in class — though students can do the units from anywhere with an internet connection — and students submit assignments, such as scale sketches of their own shoes, as well as explore careers related to those assignments. 

“At the end, they’re super, super excited with what they made, with what they customized the way they wanted,” the STEAM teacher said.

Students also record videos of themselves to reflect on their learning. The portfolios they build of their work and their reflections will follow them into high school, where they can explore more targeted career possibilities.

“From the get-go in my classroom, one of my ‘rules’ is that failing is OK,” Medina said. “If it doesn’t work out, that’s fine; we’re going to try again. In the end you get a product you made, and that (builds) your confidence, even if there were things that didn’t work.”

In addition, students record a “Who I am” video once every school year. Those, too, stay in their portfolios to keep a record of their career exploration progression all the way through their senior year.

Dykhouse said the social-emotional component is strong, “from the aspect of students being able to learn more about themselves. Maybe I’m a student who struggles a bit, who’s not the A-student, and who gets into a STEAM class and is able to use their brain and their skill sets in a different way than what they’re used to.”

Vermaat, the principal, said the combination of instruction from Dykhouse and Medina “has been a wonderful marriage of bringing out the best of them both for the betterment of the kids. They are really why Grow MainStreet excelled right away here.”

Scaling CTE to Younger Students

The first school in the country to launch Grow MainStreet was Ravenna High School. Besides there and at Northview, others now include two elementary schools in the Westwood Community Schools district, Grant Public Schools, Potter’s House in Grand Rapids, and a school in Colorado.

John Kraus, project director for the Mavin consortium of school districts, said five more Grow MainStreet modules are being developed and that he is meeting with other districts as well.

Freshly printed shoes prepare to meet their creators (courtesy)

Kraus previously has worked as a teacher and a principal in both a traditional high school and at Kent Career Tech Center, which provides training to high school students in a wide variety of career fields. 

It was the Tech Center experience that “really spoke to me,” Kraus said, “wanting to scale those career and technical education experiences to students at a younger age.

“When you can see the outcomes we’re seeing, then you know your efforts are worth it. A job can be a job, and a job can be a passion and a calling.”

Kraus saidGrow MainStreet can be transformative, not only for students but for classroom teachers. 

“I think they have something in their hands with this that they’ve never had before, that brings relevance to their academic standards and that engages them — and (Grow MainStreet) is developed to lighten teachers’ loads, not to create more work for them.”

Sue Gardner, Kent ISD assistant superintendent of Career and Talent Development, called Grow MainStreet “a best practice” prelude to a recent initiative launched there to dramatically increase career exploration, career training and work-based learning opportunities for students in districts across the service area by working with area industry partners. 

“The career readiness aspect of Grow MainStreet is just brilliant, having middle school kids exposed to employment options in high-demand areas, and already having hands-on experiences with that,” Gardner said. “What a wonderful opportunity.” 

Read more from Northview:
Virtual career exploration a hit with students
Crash courses offer a smorgasbord of learning

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Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema is a reporter and copy editor, covering Northview. She is a Grand Rapids native and a product of Grand Rapids Public Schools, including Brookside and West Leonard elementaries, City Middle/High School and Ottawa Hills. She found her tribe in journalism in 1997 and has never wanted to do anything but write. For 15 years she was a freelance journalist for The Grand Rapids Press, covering local schools and government, religion, business, home & garden and lifestyles. She and her husband, John, think even those without kiddos should be invested in their local schools and made to feel a part of them. Read Morgan's full bio


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