In my 19 years working on school-to-business partnerships for education, I’ve heard students repeat the same questions: Why am I learning this in math? Why am I reading this in English? Why do I have to do this science project? How is my education relevant?
Relevancy is one of the most important factors in motivating students to stay in school and engaging them to make the most of their education. But to show relevancy, the education community needs to connect better with the world of work.
Through the Bridge to Employment project, which is funded by Johnson & Johnson, FHI 360 has worked in more than 50 locations in the United States and other countries, connecting students and teachers to staff in health care industries. Industry staff talk to students about the courses they had to take after high school, the credentials they earned, what they do for daily tasks on the job and how their work now relates to lessons they learned in the classroom.
In Livingston, Scotland, for example, a group of about 25 15-year-old girls worked alongside female scientists at Johnson & Johnson for three years. Among other experiences, the young women performed experiments and practiced suturing on a beef steak. Ultimately, the program leaders designed a health care curriculum that is now being used in schools across the country. Many of the young women who participated in the program said they were now considering a career in science, a field they’d never particularly thought about before.
In Solano, California, none of the students in the Bridge to Employment had planned to go to college when they started high school. Most were first-generation Americans and the children of migrant workers. But after participating in the program, 19 of the 20 high school seniors were accepted into colleges. One young man was the first in his extended family to go to college. He credited Bridge to Employment’s tutoring and college exposure for his success. And, he said that simply being in a work environment helped him envision himself as an adult professional.
That element — imagination — is critical to preparing students fully for college and a career. The more opportunities students have to visit colleges and practice being in a job, the more likely they are to see that those doors are open to them. By the time they graduate from high school, they will move on to the next step because they will have already imagined themselves there and know that college and a career can be a reality.
For students to make that psychological and emotional transition, schools and businesses need to see each other differently. When I initially ask schools about partnerships with businesses, staff often express enthusiasm but are not sure how to make connections other than asking for a donation, such as a microscope or an old dentist’s chair.
For their part, businesses sometimes view involvement with middle or high school students as a waste of valuable time, especially when staff do not understand the value or what their role could be.
Instead, FHI 360 works with schools and businesses to benefit each other. Time becomes the donation: involving employees in the classroom or teachers in industry externships, or providing students tours of companies.
As a result, dialogue opens up in a holistic and engaging way. Local businesses can help teachers extend and augment what they’re doing in the classroom, bringing much-needed relevancy to lessons. And businesses can prepare the next generation of workers with the latest skills and information that may not have made it into the textbooks yet.
In fact, some of the most exciting programs at FHI 360 don’t involve students at all. We bring biology and chemistry teachers into private industry labs and help schools and businesses to build a curriculum together.
These kinds of connections ensure that teachers are able to answer students’ questions effectively — explaining not only what they are learning, but why.