Self-exploration is critical to student career planning

Now that Pennsylvania public schools are tasked with helping all students create career plans, they need to go a step further—have them create three.

While they’re at it, schools also should make sure that kids don’t begin career planning without having first explored their interests and assessed their skills, said Boston University Professor V. Scott Solberg. PhD. Solberg spoke in March to a group of educators gathered at the Consortium for a workshop presented in partnership with the Mid-Atlantic Regional Educational Laboratory. 

“Interest inventories often go straight to careers, but we want kids to find first out how they relate to the world,” Solberg said. When they connect careers to personal interests and goals, they’re much more likely to “take ownership of their learning.”

Identifying more than one career plan not only gives students a fallback, it also makes them think more deeply about their interests and skills. The magic number seems to be three because research suggests students with three different plans both do better in school and are happier later in life, Solberg said.

With schools relying too heavily on test scores as benchmarks of progress, too many students go off to college with no plan, or plans that didn’t adequately take account of who they are. It’s why too many drop out or change majors, Solberg said. “We need educators to realize they’re not just teaching subjects. We need to think about those next steps, not just subjects.”

To ensure that kids have the chance for self-exploration, Solberg suggested they do written reflections on what they’ve learned about themselves and what tentative career and life goals they can envision.

Additionally, he said the interest of a caring adult can be critical in starting the process. One common way of ensuring this access is pairing students with adult mentors in their schools. But some schools even are bringing in retirees to help kids, he said. Additionally, schools can bring business people in for career explorations, panel discussions and other activities.

Among the highest priorities for many educators at the workshop was helping students connect with real-world experiences and role models outside the classroom.

Baldwin Whitehall School District’s Assistant Superintendent Denise Sedlacek, M.Ed., for example, said her team would like to see more job-shadows for students in middle school and, at higher grade levels, more internships and cooperative education arrangements, in which kids combine classroom time with jobs.

“Our bullseye is face-to-face,” agreed South Allegheny School District Superintendent Dr. Lisa Duval. “For our kids, career exploration has to be more than logging onto a computer and researching a career. We have to get them onsite.”

Duval said families in her district can’t necessarily provide exposure to the kinds of careers that their kids might want. “We have to be the catalyst to say, ‘If you want more, you can have more’.”





Alliance presentation sheds light on teen behavior

Remember the billion-dollar, 1970s advertising campaign warning young people about the dangers of drugs—how they’d fry your brain like an egg, among other things? It had no effect. Drug use didn’t decline at all.

Despite reaching millions of people, the campaign likely failed its intended purpose because of the way our brains work, Carnegie Mellon University Professor Julie Downs, PhD. told educators gathered for a Future Ready Alliance session in March.

Instilling fear ultimately isn’t a strategy for changing teen behavior, she said. “You can’t live in a state of fear.” Instead, the brain responds more to actionable information.

With support from The Heinz Endowments, Dr. Downs gave special presentation on social and emotional learning as part of a series of Alliance “target” sessions, when participating teams and others focus on a topic related to their ongoing work improving college and career readiness in their schools. Dr. Downs talk covered a range of troublesome teen issues, ranging from risky behaviors like drug use to not studying enough.

Although it may not seem so at times, teens are just as capable of making rational choices as adults, Dr. Downs said. And they make bad choices for many of the same reasons as well. But they’re also more susceptible to what she terms “hot states,” when actions are driven more by the primitive, limbic regions of the brain that are responsible for feelings.

In cooler states, she explained, teen decisions are driven more by reason. Feelings still play a role, but a proper one—augmenting judgement.

Because kids have feelings of wanting to be liked and accepted, peer pressure often influences them to engage in risks that reasoning would tell them to avoid. A dire warning might not help them resist, because it’s not actionable, Downs said. “It doesn’t give them any tools. It’s not behaviorally useful information.”

Downs illustrated the emotional pull peer relationships can have on youngsters with the story of a young woman who’d been the victim of cyberbullying so severe, she received death threats. To escape her tormentors, the girl withdrew from social media.  But ultimately, “safety and wellbeing felt less important than being left out,” so she went back, Downs said.

To help kids avoid being pulled into behavior they know they shouldn’t, it’s best to talk about coping strategies in “cool” states, before the need arises. Contingency plans are among the “tools” that help kids avoid risks, Downs said. Other aids in in resisting temptation include environmental cues. For example, putting salad at the beginning of a buffet table can encourage more healthy eating.

For adults to understand teen behavior and guide decisions, it’s also helpful to understand the drivers of intuitive choices. Among these, people tend toward overconfidence and toward an “illusion of control,” both of which can play into taking chances like driving too fast or not studying enough for a test.











Rand seeks elementary schools for coding study

March 1 is the deadline for applying to participate in the Rand Corp.’s codeSpark pilot. Using codeSpark’s “Learn to Code” platform kids will learn coding and computational thinking using puzzles and games. RAND Corporation is seeking southwestern Pennsylvania elementary schools to participate in a pilot test of codeSPARK’s “Learn to Code” platform. codeSPARK is an award-winning platform for young children that uses puzzles and games to teach coding and computational thinking. The study is for 1st and 2nd grade classes and there is a preference for schools that don’t already offer a computer science/computational thinking curriculum in those grades.Learn more here and to express interest, just complete this form.

UPMC renews support

UPMC has again become a sponsor both for the Consortium’s annual Student Leadership Conference for The Future Is Mine (TFIM), our career exploration program for high school students and for our Champions of Learning Awards celebration. 

“We’re very grateful to UPMC,” said the Consortium’s Executive Director Mary Kay Babyak. “The health system has been a longstanding supporter for our work.”

” In addition to helping underwrite these to important events, UPMC also often collaborates with us to provide career exploration opportunities for students,” Babyak  added. “Our partnership always has been a wonderful example of the mutually beneficial way that employers can play a role in education.”


Expanding Innovation 2.0  helps districts emphasize the human element in designing change

It’s incredible what schools can do with a little “affinity clustering” or a smattering of “roses, buds and thorns.”

When educators in Shaler School District set out to reimagine middle school using Human Centered Design (HCD) methods such as these “it was literally transformational—it’s been a real game-changer for us,” said Assistant Principal Dr. Shannon Howard. The methods not only put Shaler closer to its goal, they also dramatically improved morale, she said. 

The HCD methods the team chose, beginning with “affinity clustering,” helped educators realize that, although they come from different disciplines and departments, their needs and wants are much the same, Dr. Howard added.

HCD is an activities-based approach to problem-solving that focuses on people above other factors, whether the challenge is making a better product, as is often the case in industry, or finding the best ways to launch initiatives or make changes n schools.

As part of Expanding Innovation 2.0, the Consortium is partnering with LUMA Institute to help educators use LUMA’s HCD methods to plan and implement various projects. A first cohort of seven schools and districts learned HCD in the fall and presented 90-day progress reports on their projects in early February, just as a second cohort began training.

Educators in our first cohort put together their own combinations of LUMA’s 36 different HCD methods—among them, affinity clustering and identifying roses, buds and thorns—to plan and implement projects ranging from reimagining Shaler’s middle school to redesigning a library into a “Future Readiness Center” in Brownsville Area School District and enlisting first graders in Northgate School District to improve an elementary school cafeteria. (We’ll tell you more about all of the individual projects in an upcoming series of stories, so keep an eye on our social media and website as we roll them out!)

At the project presentations, where Hunter made her remarks, New Castle School District’s Director of Techology Emily Sanders said one big benefit of HCD is that the methods put all participants on equal footing. “Everybody’s voice is heard,” she said.

Using the affinity clustering method, for example, participants in the HCD process gather ideas about different aspects of a question on post-it notes so that they can be sorted out visually around common themes. Doing so means that no individual’s or group’s ideas take precedence.

Sanders said the process also brings organization to a project, keeping participants on track and focused.

Educators participating in the first cohort were from Allegheny Valley, Bethlehem Center, Brownsville Area, New Castle, Northgate, Shaler and South Allegheny school districts.

The second cohort includes teams from Duquesne City, Greater Latrobe, Greensburg Salem Riverview and Yough school districts as well as Manchester Academic Charter School and Pittsburgh Brashear High School.






Schell supports TFIM Conference

Schell Games has again become a sponsor for the Consortium’s annual Student Leadership Conference for The Future Is Mine (TFIM), our career exploration program for high school students. 

“We’re very thankful for this year’s sponsorship,” said the Consortium’s Executive Director Mary Kay Babyak. “But we are equally appreciative of our partnership with Schell Games. It has contributed to TFIM and the Conference in multiple ways. The company not only has sponsored the Conference numerous times, it also has often hosted career explorations of the gaming industry and helped give interested students an understanding of the many pathways it can open to them.”


Career learning opportunities coming up for students, parents and educators

Duquesne Light Co. plans to offer opportunities for both students and teachers to learn about careers in the electric utility industry.

Students who are in their senior year will be offered a spring “Boot Camp” from March 11 through April 19. The six week, half-day program is designed to prepare students for the Electrical Distribution Technology (EDT) program that Duquesne Light offers in partnership with Community College of Allegheny County. The program helps students become candidates for skilled crafts within the electric utility industry. Learn more.

The utility also will offer educators 2-week paid internships from July 22 through August 2. The internships are designed to give educators hands-on experiences to acquaint them with a wide range of careers in the electric utility industry with an emphasis on skilled crafts. Educators also will learn about job and training requirements  and develop lesson plans that they can use in their classrooms. Learn more

South Allegheny School District is offering an open-house for students and parents from any school district to explore options for the future with representatives from three dozen employers, the military, post-secondary schools and apprenticeship programs. The event takes place Thursday, Feb. 14 from 6 pm to 8 pm. Learn more.

Builders Guild of Western Pennsylvania, along with trade union apprenticeship programs and construction companies, is hosting an opportunity for students to learn about careers in construction on Friday, March 29 from 7:30 am to 3:30 pm at the David Lawrence Convention Center. Learn more. Allegheny County schools in need of transportation can contact Markese Long, Community Engagement Specialist at Partner4Work at Schools seeking transportation assistance in Beaver, Washington and Greene counties to Ami Gatts at

Woodland Hills students to look at chemicals from different angles as part of Student Powered Solutions project

Students from three entrepreneurship classes in Woodland Hills School District kicked off a project with Covestro in January as part of our Student Powered Solutions (SPS) program. The kickoff came just a month following conclusion of three SPS projects at Hampton Middle School.

Before beginning a tour of Covestro’s North American headquarters and laboratories, several of the company’s staffers briefed the Woodland Hills students on a challenge the company and others in its industry face: persuading people—possibly more so the younger they are—that not all chemicals are harmful. 

The opening presentation and the tour were designed to dispel that notion and demonstrate that the polymers Covestro produces have environmental benefits.

For one thing, none go into the single-use plastics that have been so much in the news for polluting waterways.  Instead, Covestro’s polymers are used in durable goods like automobiles, mattresses and refrigerators. More importantly, a number of the uses have resulted in environmental benefits, like better mileage in cars where plastics have been used to replace many metal components like bumpers.

Presentations before the tour and in the labs were an eye-opener for many students.

“It’s all a lot more complicated than I thought,” said Chloe, young woman responding to a question from a chemist who quizzed students about their perceptions after they’d toured his lab.

Creating projects to assess and change student perceptions could be equally complicated, students seemed to agree.  Over lunch following the tour, Zachary, a ninth grader, for example, said he needed to learn more about instances where environmental tradeoffs favor plastics. “We need to gather evidence,” he added.

Like others, he was enthused about the project because it involves him in a real-world issue. Doing research for answers and evidence and applying learning to the real world is key to the kind of Project Based Learning Experiences that SPS supports. By working in teams, partnering with companies and taking charge of their projects, students also develop soft skills, like collaboration, communications and critical thinking.

Earlier in the month, three middle school classes at Hampton School District, middle schoolers wound up SPS projects as part of their science classes. One class partnered with 412-Food Rescue, a nonprofit that tries to curtail food waste, on ways to reduce food waste in the school cafeteria. The other two took on a National Geographics challenge to find ways of reducing water pollution.




Consortium and United Way name finalists for the 2019 Champions of Learning Awards

Selection Committees for the 2019 Champions of Learning Awards have announced 18 finalists in six categories for 2019. (See complete list.)

“It’s just an outstanding group of candidates” said the Consortium’s Executive Director Mary Kay Babyak. “We want to congratulate all of our finalists and let them know that they emerged from an extremely competitive pool of nominees. We’re really looking forward to celebrating them in May.”

The awards are intended to bring recognition to adults who go above and beyond to give youth in our region outstanding learning opportunities, mentoring or support.

The Consortium and United Way began this year to field nominations and select candidates in partnership. In the past two years, the organizations partnered in the award celebration where winners are announced, but held separate nominating processes and had different categories.

Categories include: Leadership; K-6 Educators; 7-12 Educators; School Staff; Providers/Community Partners; and Volunteers.

Winners in each of the categories will be announced at the Champions of Learning Awards celebration on Thursday, May 2. Make your reservations to attend the event through Eventbrite.