Q&A: Junior Achievement goes virtual with JobSpark program for eighth-graders

Junior Achievement of Central Indiana launched its JobSpark program four years ago to give eighth-graders the opportunity to learn more about available careers in some of the largest-demand fields in Indiana.

The program combines in-school lessons from teachers with a two-day event at the Indiana State Fairgrounds, where more than 10,000 students explore interactive projects and exhibits set up by more than 100 companies and 1,000 volunteers.

“We want to give eighth-graders hands-on experiences that could spark an interest in the possibilities for their future, open their eyes to opportunities that in many, many cases they otherwise may not have been aware of or had any opportunity to learn about, to help them really assess and identify their own interests, talents and strengths, and how those could and will align with some of these future opportunities,” said Jennifer Burk, the organization’s CEO.

Of course, putting thousands of students together for hands-on experiences isn’t a good idea right now. So Junior Achievement has been working with its partners to turn JobSpark into a virtual event, complete with avatars, leaderboards and more.

Burk talked with IBJ about this year’s effort.

Can you explain what Junior Achievement does in central Indiana and how JobSpark fits into that?

Our mission is to inspire and empower young people to own their future success. We do that through programs that start as early as kindergarten, and even pre-K, all the way through high school. We … have a focus around our pillars of career exploration, work- and career-readiness skills or employability skills, financial literacy and entrepreneurship. Our programs throughout that full continuum are intended to be age-appropriate and very hands-on, and to really connect students with the career opportunities for their future.

We partner with a couple of hundred schools here in central Indiana, and our programs are all curriculum-based and tied to Indiana’s academic standards.

Some [of our programs] are perhaps more well-known than others as they’re a standout experience for a lot of kids—like JA BizTown. Most kids have the chance to do BizTown when they are in fifth grade and, when they do, it’s an experience they don’t forget. JA JobSpark, which is intended for eighth-graders, is another one of those more well-known programs.

Both BizTown and JobSpark have been at-capacity programs, reaching over 10,000 students a year typically, and they’re an important milestone in the lives of a lot of children throughout central Indiana.

What has JobSpark looked like and felt like in a normal year?

Each year, we provide and train the teachers to deliver a curriculum that precedes JobSpark for several weeks prior to [students] coming to the State Fairgrounds for this experience. And then typically in September, over a two-day period, we’ll have—well, last year, it was 10,700-some eighth-graders attending JA JobSpark.

When they walk into the two connected pavilions at the Indiana State Fairgrounds, they will be somewhat bombarded by colorful signs and areas depicting each of the eight industry clusters, which are those representing the in-demand jobs here in central Indiana.

They’ll see all the red signs that show them that it’s the health and life sciences cluster. And there will be a multitude of different experiences that grab their attention, from a number of hands-on experiments to simulated working lungs, to an OR, actually a simulated operating room with a DaVinci robot and a number of medical professionals who will lead students through robotic surgery that they can watch on the big screen. So it’s quite a robust series of experiences.

Typically, more than 150 experiences spread throughout these eight different industry clusters.

Which elements will be preserved in this year’s offerings?

So, fortunately, we’ve had a fair amount of time here to adjust and adapt and pursue the best substitute in a virtual setting for the kinds of experiences that I just described to you. … We’ve actually created a platform that students will virtually enter, walk into, and it will look like the pavilions at the Indiana State Fairgrounds. So it will have all the signage and the pipe and drape. It’s all color-coordinated for each of the different sections, the industry clusters. It will have a series of avatars that will greet students and introduce them to some of the basics. And then they will have the chance … to enter each of those cluster areas.

When they virtually enter the agriculture energy and natural resources area, as an example, there will be both live and video options to engage with volunteers. There will be live tours led by volunteers with opportunities for interaction and Q&A. And then there will be very robust series of videos that also will have an opportunity for live Q&A.

It’s been really important to us that we maintain that interactive piece that we know is so memorable and so meaningful for students. Just to have an adult interested in engaging with you as an eighth-grader is memorable.

In previous JA JobSparks physically at the fairgrounds, we’ve had something like 150 different unique experiences, from laying bricks to working an engine, doing virtual welding, to climbing up in a tank and a firetruck and police car and experiencing just a whole broad spectrum of those types of experiences. Kids will now have the chance to do even more of that. It’s given us the opportunity to increase to actually 250 experiences. We’ve been able to add a whole bunch of new things that we’re really excited about.

Were there space constraints or factors like needing heavy or expensive machinery for an experience that might make the virtual realm actually work better?

You totally hit the nail on the head. We have had space constraints.

And we work with each of those industry clusters, who … typically meet for close to a year to prepare for the JA JobSpark. They have had to in their monthly career cluster meetings weed out some experiences that are awesome and amazing, but there just wasn’t space for. And so without a doubt, there were space constraints that reduced the number of experiences that could be provided to kids.

That’s how we’ve gone from 150 experience last year to 250 experiences this year. We’ve been able to bring some of those in and the groups have done an awesome job of just thinking about ideas in new and more creative ways.

We are able to, as a result of this transition to the virtual platform, actually do some tours and virtually walk students through a dairy farm and through manufacturing (plants) and into some spaces that couldn’t be replicated and brought to the state fairgrounds—but also some of those kinds of spaces don’t allow visitors anyway.

And so we can now have a scientist literally walking students through a laboratory and showing them some of the different jobs that take place in connection with that setting in a way that couldn’t really have been shown otherwise.

Those are some of the things we’re really excited about.

How do you think this change in format will impact the program’s goals?

I think it’s an important opportunity to be able to meet students and teachers where they are today. So that’s first and foremost. We wouldn’t be able to provide these experiences in these current times without the ability to have a platform that students can access from home, that they can access from the classroom, that their teachers can guide them through regardless of where either of them are located.

Our JA staff has done, in my opinion, a remarkable job of making all the curriculum available in an online format and all the worksheets and workbooks are fillable PDFs. They’re in a form that teachers can use with their students in a really meaningful way.

And that’s just the wave of the future. That is not something that is just for what we all hope is maybe the one year of COVID precautions that make everything different. That is something that will evolve this program to continue to grow and expand and reach more kids.

We have the opportunity to continue to build—maybe even in a more robust way—through this kind of platform and commitment.

We’re living in a world where screens are competing for our attention. I would imagine even more so for school-aged children. So how do you overcome all of the screen pressure that eighth graders are currently facing through their virtual schooling?

Such a valid question. We again have the good fortune of being integrated into the school curriculum with this program. … You’re right, we’re not hoping that anybody devotes eight hours to sitting in front of their screen and trying to digest all these cool experiences.

It’s smaller bites. And those nearly 70 schools who are participating each have a defined time within that two-day period where their students will engage with the JA JobSpark platform. Then they’ll have the opportunity to take a break, reflect, come back to some of the additional information and continue to build on that day of experience.

Has it been hard to find volunteers?

It has not been hard to find volunteers. We are very fortunate to regularly work with about 5,000 volunteers a year. The transition to this virtual setting has … changed the types of volunteers and volunteer experiences that are needed.

So a lot of volunteer time has gone into the planning and preparation. Less volunteer time is needed at the event. So when we had 1,200 volunteers over two days of JobSpark last year, many of those were working in the parking lot. They were bus greeters, they were welcomers in the building. They were in a whole variety of different physical capacities that simply aren’t needed this year.

On the flip side of that, though, we needed a lot of great minds to help us put this together. So there has been plenty of opportunities, and we’ve been fortunate to continue to have these great partners that we’ve found mostly are itching for volunteer opportunities.•

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