A seventh grade student in a rural middle school is looking for ways to combine his love of art with his curiosity about computers. A young girl from East Texas searches for more information about the clothes that astronauts wear for an industrial design project. A boy in an urban neighborhood wants to follow up on a recent science lesson by learning more about amoebas.
Each of these interests provides teachers and parents a starting point for engaging the young people in career exploration and development. Yet for most students and adults, the link between personal interests and career possibilities is unclear or absent altogether. To help teachers, counselors, and parents strengthen those links for young people, EDC staff created The FunWorks, a Web site designed to capture the imagination of middle school students and encourage them to consider careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Funded by the National Science Foundation, The FunWorks is a part of the growing National STEM Digital Library (NSDL). Produced in collaboration with a youth design team, it features online career resources for middle-school students with a particular emphasis on engaging currently underrepresented populations in STEM education and careers—girls, minorities, and students with disabilities.
Research shows that the middle school years are a formative time in a young person’s evolving self-perception, says EDC’s Sarita Nair. “If young kids get turned on to STEM during these years they are more likely to choose the science and math electives in high school and college,” she says. “Conversely, if they don’t take the STEM classes in middle and high school, they effectively lock themselves out of STEM careers later on in life. Young people today are just not informed enough about the variety of STEM careers available to them. We need to make these careers options more visible.”
The FunWorks promotes these promising careers by beginning with the topics popular with young adolescents today. “There are other career sites out there that say, ‘Here’s what you need to do to become an electrical engineer,” says Nair. “Here’s what you do to become a programmer.’ They might list the engineering jobs, necessary skills, salary. They include a lot of text, but they don’t get the kids to see the connections between where they are now and where they might be in the future.
“We wanted our site to present career content in a way that is meaningful to this age group,” she continues. “So we started with what kids are interested in today, not with where we want them to be as adults.”
The site is built around topics popular with young adolescents, such as sports, games, music, and art. These broad areas of interest are used to draw young people into learning more about related careers. If you choose sports as a favorite topic, for instance, you quickly discover a host of sports-related careers like sports doctor, physical therapist, industrial designer, or footwear engineer. Select music and you learn about the work of a sound engineer, composer, or instrument technician. The site leads users from a quick overview of these varied careers to profiles of real people who hold these jobs. It also recommends other activities to pursue, books to read, and classes to take in middle and high school. The site also features some exciting interactive activities, such as an online knee surgery and a digital crime-scene investigation.
A youth design team
To ensure that the site will speak to young people, EDC project staff involved middle school students in every aspect of its design. “You can’t bring the end-user in to review a nearly finished product,” says Nair. “You’ve got to involve them from the beginning. We never would have come to this design without the involvement of the kids.”
The staff began with a series of focus groups and surveys involving more than 300 young adolescents from the greater Boston area. They reached a demographically diverse group of young people through after-school programs, community technology centers (CTCs), and other youth programs. The researchers elicited information about adolescent career perceptions and needs: What do middle school students know about STEM-related careers? What more do they want to know? How do they talk about careers? Who are their role-models? They were also interested to learn more about teen Web preferences: What sites do they like? What look and feel attracts them? Which sites bring them back repeatedly?
After conducting the initial focus groups, EDC staff assembled a youth design team drawn from a CTC in Boston. The group, 4 girls and 4 boys from diverse backgrounds, met with EDC staff twice a month for 5 months. “The young people really designed this site with us from the ground up,” says Nair. “They helped us determine color schemes, a navigation plan, even the name of the site. It was an iterative process where we would bring them some design features based on our initial focus group research, get their input, rework it, and bring it back. Some of the young people were experienced users of technology and some were beginners. But it was clear in working with them how intuitive technology is for this generation.”
“At first I thought it would be all writing,” explains Brandon. “But then we came and we worked on computers and shared ideas. We did a lot of creative stuff.”
In addition to the final product, the young people got a lot out of the design process. “It is important for kids this age to be asked their opinions and to see that they have ideas and knowledge that are valued by adults,” says Nair. “This was the first opportunity many of these young people had to work together on such a collaborative project. One boy began by being very disruptive. He was an attention-seeker, always making jokes, disrupting the group. After about 3 or 4 meetings he completely turned around. Once he realized that we were serious about listening and involving him he became respectful, cooperative, and very productive.”
“I learned that you should always have a backup career just in case the first career doesn’t work out,” says one Design Team member talking about the chances of a professional sports career. Another Design Team member comments on how working on the site broadened his horizons: “I used to think only about careers in sports like basketball,” says Dion, age 13. “But some of these [careers] are really cool, like engineering.”
Originally published on June 1, 2005