CareerStart brings STEM career relevance to middle school classrooms

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CED Guest Author

This is a guest post from Dr. Dennis Orthner, Professor of Social Work and Education at UNC-Chapel Hill.

The topic of this post is CareerStart, an effective and low-cost education intervention that ties middle school lesson plans to information about careers, including those in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM). CareerStart is deployed in nine school districts in North Carolina and the results of the intervention are significant: higher levels of classroom engagement, fewer unexcused absences and higher test scores. CareerStart is not currently available in Caswell or Lenoir Counties. Are there local CCP partners interested in learning more about this program? More information below the fold:

In a recent article in eSchool News, the writer complains that “In a recent survey, a majority of students said that while their science and math teachers seem knowledgeable and keep class interesting, they aren’t teaching about science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) career options. High school students also said they don’t believe STEM knowledge is integral to getting a good job, which doesn’t bode well for leaders counting on STEM education to keep the nation at the forefront of the global economy.”

The CareerStart program can help science and math educators address this problem. CareerStart is a middle school teaching strategy that increases the relevance of core curriculum courses in 6th, 7th and 8th grades.  Teachers augment their instruction by giving examples of how what they are teaching is related to the careers and job skills of people in their communities.  Example lessons are available on-line through LearnNC and teachers are encouraged to invent their own lessons.  Currently, CareerStart lessons are being used in 9 school districts with over 500 teachers and over 20,000 students.

The purpose of CareerStart is to promote the relevance of instruction for middle school students, thereby enhancing the students’ attention to the content of what is being taught in the core middle school courses of math, science, language arts, and social studies.  If students can get answers to their basic question of “Who really uses this information in the real world?” or “When will I ever really use this information when I leave school?” it is believed they will attend more to the lesson, see their education as important to them, get in trouble less often, increase their academic achievement, and stay in school to graduate.  Since middle school engagement is key to later success and graduation in high school, CareerStart aims to promote better transitions into high school and improved labor force capacity building for our state and nation.

A longitudinal evaluation is being conducted of over 7,500 students in the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County middle schools.  CareerStart lessons were introduced into a random sample of schools and teachers and students are being tracked from the beginning of 6th grade through 8th grade and beyond.

Current evaluation findings indicate that all of the projected outcomes are better for students when more of their math and science teachers provide career-relevant examples in their classes.  The schools implementing CareerStart, compared to control schools, have higher career-relevant instruction, and higher student engagement, and improved test scores on math. The data further tell us that students who are fortunate enough to have most of the core math and science teachers providing career examples are significantly more likely than students hearing fewer career examples to 1) be highly engaged in their schools, 2) have fewer unexcused absences, 3) are less likely to get into trouble and get suspended, and 4) perform better on their end-of-grade math and reading tests.  All these findings also occur for lower-income and students of color and remain significant after introducing statistical controls for demographic characteristics of the students and their families. What is particularly interesting is that career-relevant instruction in math and science classes is associated with more students achieving mastery in 8th grade on both math and reading EOG tests.

In a focus group with 8th grade students, one young female student said: “I like it when they [her teachers] talk about career stuff, because then I’ll get an idea of my future.  But I would like it if they would do it a bit more.”  That is the objective of CareerStart.

Will Lambe authored the NC Rural Center report, Small Towns, Big Ideas, and he served as Director of the Community and Economic Development Program at the School of Government from 2009 to 2014.

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