Oak Ridge School District near Knoxville, Tennessee is ranked the number one school district and the first to be certified in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) in the state. They are also dedicated to the mission of Tennessee Pathways, a state initiative that ensures high-quality K-12 college and career advisement, so it’s no surprise that the district is at the forefront of the trend to give elementary and middle school students a greater head start in career exploration.
While the school district already introduces careers to students, starting in kindergarten, they emphasize STEM careers in addition to traditional high profile, careers like doctor, police officer, and fireman. Middle school Career and Technical Education courses set the stage for the articulation to high school career academies, and must be aligned. After careful consideration, CTE director Dr. Holly Cross decided to revamp the district’s teen living program, which aligned only to the education career cluster, to create a new program with a broader career exploration focus, aligned to all sixteen nationally recognized career clusters. When that course structure was in place, she applied for the state’s work-based learning grant, and found success with VirtualJobShadow.com, an interactive, digital platform with sixteen career clusters that feature lesser-known and cutting-edge jobs that students rarely get to see or know exist.
According to Cross, what lifts VirtualJobShadow.com ahead of the competition is its engaging, informative video vignettes featuring real people at actual jobs. These videos show students how their passions can lead to careers. Take, for example, the video featuring Andrew Jakubowski, a surfer who turned his passion into his livelihood designing and producing surfboards. Says Jakubowski, “I’m fortunate in that I love what I do and because I love what I do, it doesn’t feel like work.” Now the business director for an innovative company called Arctic Foam, Jakubowski is working to produce the first surfboard out of polyurethane foam, a sustainable material made from algae oil, revolutionizing the way surfboards are made.
Not only do the students love VirtualJobShadow.com, but according to Cross, it has also been “a huge win” for busy teachers, especially during the standardized testing season when “time is sacred.” Instead of pulling students from classes to go on field trips, which can prove quite expensive, VirtualJobShadow.com levels the playing field by providing the opportunity for all students to explore their careers of interest without having to leave the classroom. Furthermore, VirtualJobShadow.com fills the role of work-based learning for middle school students since they are too young to drive or gain work-site experience, while meeting Tennessee’s forthcoming requirement for interest and aptitude assessment for 7th and 8th graders.
Cross also raves that VirtualJobShadow.com has more teacher-friendly functions which require “fewer clicks” than its competitors. They can easily create and assign lessons to students, lessons that are already aligned to the curriculum and state standards. While there are other career exploration programs out there, they often lack the combined features of engaging multimedia content, interest assessments, career-planning tools, and reporting capabilities that provide data to administrators and government organizations requiring evidence and accountability.
In addition to its current successes, the Asheville, NC company that created VirtualJobShadow.com, Strivven Media, is constantly working to adapt, grow and exceed the needs of its clients through partnerships with local businesses. When Chief Technology Officer, Ilya Gorelik, met with Cross for a one-year follow-up and asked her what they could do to make the platform even better, she suggested that they shoot videos of jobs in the variety of industries that employ people in the area. The capability to do this was exciting because it helped bring together multiple districts to fund the product.
Cross says, “that until the kids get to see these jobs for themselves, they have no idea what they really entail. Once they get out there, they are surprised to find that, for example, in advanced manufacturing, there are a lot of women on the line or that robots are programmed to assemble parts. Additionally, they are surprised to learn that there are high-tech processes happening that require very targeted skills, and that people in these jobs get to work on state-of-the-art projects like 3D printing and driverless cars.”
Cross and Gorelik are now making plans to team up with regional companies such as Eagle Bend Magna, which produces the steel cages that protect passengers during car accidents for manufacturers such as Honda an BMW, and CNSY12, a prominent company in the nuclear industry that is working with Oak Ridge to encourage more female students to pursue careers in engineering. Highlighting these careers through VirtualJobShadow.com will not only give these corporations more exposure to future employees but also showcase in-demand career opportunities and correct any misperceptions students may have.
According to Cross, “students don’t realize that there are many job opportunities in the aerospace, boating, automotive, and manufacturing industries available in their own backyards. This ongoing collaboration with VirtualJobShadow.com will make the learning process even more engaging and relevant for the students of Oak Ridge, as well as students across the nation.”