School-business partnerships long have been a staple to building a future workforce and encouraging students to think about building a career in their own backyard.
But this year’s novel coronavirus pandemic, however, brought those traditional work and learning experiences to a halt in the spring.
The Gazette’s Iowa Ideas Conference on Thursday convened a group of program administrators from around the state — Laurie Worden with Workplace Learning Connection, Michelle Hill with Waukee School District, Mike Kuennen from New Hampton High School, Jill Janes with Boone Community School District, and Marc Benedict with No Boundaries, a partnership of Okoboji, Spencer, Graettinger-Terril and Ruthven-Ayrshire school districts — to discuss how they are moving forward.
“We had to reach out to hundreds of people we were working with to see if it made sense to continue partnerships or to see how we could adapt it,” Hill said during the online panel.
“Now we are really making sure we are supporting each other and taking a breath every once in a while because we’ve been working non-stop during this time to shift and plan.”
Workplace Learning Connection for example, works with some 4,000 business partners during any given school year to serve 94 school districts in the region, which includes some 35,000 students.
All the panelists highlighted their ability to shift in-person programming to highly accessible and engaging virtual options, from continuing project-based learning initiatives to financial literary events for middle-school students.
And students, more than anyone else, seemed to take it all in stride, panelist agreed.
“Growth mind-set is something we’ve talked about since day one,” Kuennen said. “Our students were Zoom savvy already because they’d already been meeting virtually. So we thought, this is what we are made for.
“We turned it from something negative into what kinds of opportunities were in front of us because of the pandemic. We even had students contacting the facilitators to say, here’s what we are doing next.”
All of the programs agreed that, while the pandemic has brought challenges most of them likely couldn’t have imagined, their programs are thriving and expanding.
“While students were already comfortable using Zoom and other online education platforms, having partners become more comfortable with virtual options has allowed us to tap into more opportunities than we did before,” said Janes, noting that she and her Innovative Learning staff have seen expansion in their business partnerships across a variety of industries.
“There are efficiencies for our business partners, and it makes it easier for them to jump on a call.”
Partners from outside the state have been willing to share resources and knowledge virtually, which is an exciting opportunity for the future, she said.
Adaptability has been key in operations during this time.
“We listened and offered options,” Worden said of their shifts in offerings and partnerships in the past seven months. “We have been very adaptive and experimental in our approach.”
These were key elements as the Workplace Learning Connection team shifted to creating a virtual career library that includes 76 local career speakers in all pathways talking about the work they do and the skill sets needed.
Worksite tours were moved to an online format. Group job shadow days were offered virtually.
“This has brought tremendous benefits with equity and access, which is a big focus of our program this year,” Worden added.
All the panelists were excited about the future of work-based learning experiences for students in high school and even younger, and anticipate continued expansion through online flexibility.
Diversity, political and environmental conversations are happening as well.
“There is a lot of passion behind these conversations and they are very engaging for our students,” Hill said. “Seeing the collaboration and ideas they are having has been really interesting to see, and has pushed all of our thinking — business partners, students and instructors combined.”
“We are changing education, and changing it for the better,” Kuennen said. “We are home growing our talent and in rural Iowa especially that is so important.”
For more information on all of these programs and other resources related to STEM education initiatives, go to iowastem.gov.