Career-Conscious STEM High School Sets Students Up for Success

By Kristen Almquist-Cevallos and Jesse Solomon

*Originally featured in ASCD Express’ “Ideas From the Field” Volume 14 | Issue 29*

Most of us who are engaged in high school education would agree that a critical component of our job is to prepare students for college and career. The phrase “college and career” has been used so often, however, that it’s easy to lose sight of its meaning.

In Boston, Mass., we are creating the Dearborn STEM Early College Academy, an open-enrollment public school for grades 6–12. We were incredibly fortunate to be in a brand-new $72 million school building that was intentionally designed and built for STEM learning. Boston is the home of a burgeoning STEM industry in financial services, health and life sciences, and technology. Although leading companies, hospitals, and universities are just a few subway stops away from our school, for many of our students, the distance between their lives and those opportunities can feel insurmountable.

The work of high schools can be daunting, especially for schools that are educating students who have traditionally been underserved by our educational system. As we try to ensure that our students achieve on traditional measures of academic standards, we must provide them with access to opportunities afforded to their more affluent peers.

However, the question we’re wrestling with at Dearborn brings a new sense of urgency to our work: How do we prepare students for jobs that don’t yet exist?

Identifying Career Pathways

We are creating a model STEM Early College Academy with three robust career pathways in computer science, engineering, and health and life sciences. We seek to provide a rigorous, high-quality STEM education that ensures that students are not only ready for college ready, but also ready for careers … even if the definition of “career-ready” is changing.

We examined labor market demand projections and worked with local higher education and industry partners to choose fields both with high demand in the coming years and with broad diversity in career opportunities.

An Interdisciplinary Approach

In collaboration with our STEM and humanities teachers, we are creating interdisciplinary courses for grades 11 and 12 in each pathway. Each class will be taught through a common lens with shared content, skills, and assessments, all developed by our teachers and informed by our industry and higher education partners. This interdisciplinary approach is an essential component of a career pathway because it supports students to break out of learning content in isolation and to engage in more relevant learning through authentic connections between subjects and skill sets.

Three Dearborn teachers (one each in computer science, English, and history) have come together to design our first pathway in computer science. They have been working in partnership with Microsoft and Wentworth Institute of Technology to develop interdisciplinary classes in the areas of game design and cybersecurity.

The team of teachers will continue working together next year to develop a second-year experience that will include an additional semester of cybersecurity and an independent research and design capstone project. This capstone project will allow students to use our maker space strategically to demonstrate their design and development thinking.

Informed by Industry and Higher Ed

Microsoft has been providing feedback on our curriculum and its alignment to the industry to ensure that students are learning relevant and transferable skills. Microsoft will also provide paid teacher externships this summer to help teachers have their own authentic industry experience that will, in turn, influence their teaching. Wentworth has worked with teachers to align content and skills so that students feel confident and prepared to enter early college classes next year at Wentworth.

Additionally, Wentworth will host and provide “hook” experiences in their labs on campus for our 10th graders as part of our recruitment process for the pathways. Lastly, we continue to deepen our partnership with the Boston Private Industry Council to prepare students for STEM-specific paid summer internships in their area of study.

We are excited about the prospects these pathways hold for our students and for students across the city. And we can’t do it alone. High schools that are engaged in this work need passionate and committed teachers, industry professionals, and thought partners to help us design and implement better and more relevant pathways for our students.

Ready for the Future

Through our STEM initiatives, we can authentically connect the work of high school and the work of the “real world.” Student engagement, which has been a challenge in high schools for decades, can ignite when students see the coherence between their high school experience and their future careers.

If we are truly committed to our students’ success in college and career, we need to work regularly, and intentionally, with both higher education and industry partners. By engaging in this innovative education model, we believe we can begin to close the achievement gap while we prepare students for a multitude of postsecondary opportunities—including jobs that don’t yet exist.

Kristen Almquist-Cevallos is the director of early college and career pathways at Dearborn STEM Academy in Boston, Mass. Jesse Solomon is executive director of the Boston Plan for Excellence.

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