by Jack O’Grady
As the job market grows ever more competitive, STEM employers increasingly seek job candidates with not only academic knowledge but also technical and soft-skills that typically go beyond the training that most colleges and universities provide. Often, even the most talented students encounter a steep learning curve as they transition from the classroom into the workforce. In a 2016 survey, STEM employers were asked what would help improve the capability and performance of their workforce. Employer feedback overwhelmingly centered on developing connections and skills between academia and industry. They recommended internships and project-based learning opportunities for students that would involve “Exposure to industry or real-world experience” and “industry guest lecturers, company tours/visit; help students better understand what a particular job entails” (Smith, 2016).
Work-Based Learning (WBL) achieves these goals as an active, experiential learning strategy that bridges academic knowledge and workforce skills by implementing real-world work experiences in the classroom (Raelin, 1997). This instructional approach benefits students through career awareness, exploration, preparation, and training.
Core to the WBL approach is the idea that student-driven initiatives, doing real work producing real products, provide opportunities for active learning, teamwork, and critical thinking. Students in “learning-rich” environments, such as WBL, are more likely to be positively self-motivated toward the course material and their future career development (as cited by Sweet, 2013). Although most WBL approaches in community colleges are realized through internships, many other WBL strategies can be implemented within the classroom, particularly those that address career development (Sweet, 2013).
Entrepreneurial Experiences, in which students actively participate in the creation of a real product, provide the most immersive and dynamic example of a WBL approach. Using an entrepreneurial classroom approach, students research the potential for a product, create a product idea, set up a business plan, and manage and execute the production of a product (Sweet, 2013). This process could be a simulated approach or an actual business started and run by the students. This approach marries many active learning strategies together—teamwork, active peer research, and class discussion—with sustainable assignments. The culmination of the Entrepreneurial Experience would be a student-created project that adds value to the world, inspired by the student’s personal investment in the success of the project (Wiley, 2013). An excellent example of a classroom entrepreneurial experience is STUDENTfactured, a student-run biomanufacturing company at Salt Lake Community College, where students work on real-world projects and manufacture products sold to local high school science programs. This approach provides students with practical knowledge and technical skills while fostering self-driven initiative within a guided and supportive classroom environment.
Not all WBL approaches must be as high-impact as an entrepreneurial experience or internship. Smaller scale implementations can still include fun, interactive activities such as field trips to potential workplaces or inviting prospective employers and alumni into the classroom for lectures, demonstrations, and class discussions on career exploration. The key is to make it easy for students to see themselves in potential careers and make valuable connections with the course material to future jobs. The students experience the course material in a low-stakes, fun, and energizing way.
This semester, my Introduction to Biotechnology class was invited on a 2-hour tour of the Texas Department State Health Services facility and spoke with the hiring manager about potential careers and internships. The students were all smiles after the trip. One student excitedly stated, “This experience will help me expand the options I have for my career and take into consideration what skills I need in the workforce.” In another field trip, students toured and participated in a lab demonstration during the opening of ACC’s new Biosciences Incubator (ABI). ABI provides lab space for companies to develop biotechnology products and facilitates working partnerships with scientists and students. Students working at the ABI will gain workforce training in developing new biotechnology products using state-of-the-art equipment with emerging technologies.
In my classroom, I frequently partner students with scientists on our advisory board and scientists from new start-up companies at the Biosciences Incubator. Both the scientist and student learn so much from each other that they often develop long-term connections and relationships, sometimes leading to internships and jobs. Recently, ABI resident Michael Reyes, CEO of Halo Life Science, held a career Q&A with students in my class. Michael and the students had a passionate and animated conversation about entrepreneurship, the value of creativity, hard work, and passion. I have seen the influence of industry-integrated learning approaches first hand, and it is recognizably advantageous and inspiring.
Students aren’t the only benefactors of such an active learning strategy in the classroom. Employers gain graduates with the needed skills to seamlessly transfer from the classroom to the job. Businesses that actively partner with community colleges can help nurture and grow the talent pipeline for their industry. Job satisfaction is often increased in employees – both the mentors working with students and newly hired employees, with WBL experience.
The benefits of active learning strategies are well-documented and enrich the enjoyment of classroom experiences for both the student and instructor (Sweet, 2013). A WBL approach not only increases student engagement through active learning but also connects them with potential careers. Through this method, students readily make the connection between what they are learning in the classroom with potential jobs, and they more clearly understand the impact of the course material on their future careers.
Raelin, J. (November 1997). A Model of Work-Based Learning. Organization Science. 8: 574. doi:10.1287/orsc.8.6.563
Sweet, R. (2013). Work-Based Learning: Why? How? UNESCO-UNEVOC. Retrieved from: http://www.unevoc.unesco.org/fileadmin/up/2013_epub_revisiting_global_trends_in_tvet_chapter5.pdf
Smith, T. (2016). 2016 Texas Workforce Trends Report. AC2 Regional Center. Austin Community Collge.
Wiley, D. (2013, October, 21). Iterating Toward Openness: What is Open Pedagogy? Retrieved from http://opencontent.org/blog/archives/2975