Content sponsored by Project Lead The Way and Eleven Fifty Academy

Scott Jones of Eleven Fifty Academy and Dr. Vince Bertram of Project Lead The Way discuss what it takes to prepare today’s students for fulfilling, good-paying jobs.

How can we best support students going into the unknowns of this new academic year?

Vince Bertram: We need to encourage students to use this new environment to think differently about ways to solve real-world problems. We also need to support students by better supporting teachers and caregivers. At Project Lead The Way, we are focused on equipping teachers and caregivers with the confidence, knowledge, and skills to facilitate learning wherever it takes place this fall. PLTW’s distance- learning support includes curricular enhancements embedded in the existing PLTW instructional method and delivery platform that provides alternative activities for students in a distance-learning environment. This enables students to achieve their educational objectives despite changes in their learning environment.

Scott Jones: The past six months have highlighted the inadequacies of educational systems left unprepared. Those that have an online component or global distance learning staff, such as we do at Eleven Fifty Academy, were able to adapt. We converted all of our cohorts within 72 hours and maintained exceptional outcomes of placements into high-paying jobs. It is important to support students, regardless of age, by checking in on them to ensure their emotional and social needs are taken care of. It takes patience and a great deal of grace for everyone, especially students. The CARES Act has fortunately given Hoosiers the financial freedom to attend our high-value courses for no or low cost. On average, our students double their value in the workplace after our 90-day immersion program. A large percentage of our 90-day grads have been placed DURING the pandemic.

The pandemic has taken a toll on educators. How do we strengthen the teacher pipeline in the face of these challenges?

Scott Jones: Younger populations may have an advantage with their early introduction to technology. While training and/or re-training (all) educators, technology can help all educators face challenges associated with uncontrollable events such as the pandemic. Incorporating social and emotional learning tools may also help teachers and students cope with adversity and challenges.

Vince Bertram: Teachers are critical to student success, and we must empower them to lead students in engaging and inspiring learning experiences that have real-world application. There's a saying that one can have 20 years of experience or one year of experience 20 times. The most effective teachers are the reflective practitioners who are always seeking to improve to meet the needs of their students. At PLTW, we quickly converted our Core Training, which historically has been in-person professional development, to a completely online experience. This summer we trained more than 6,000 teachers to help them prepare for the fall. Access to professional development is key for our teachers as we work to navigate these challenging times.

How do we prepare students for the workplace of tomorrow given the gaps in learning they might be experiencing now?

Vince Bertram: Prior to COVID-19, America’s skills gap represented the greatest threat to our local, state and national economies; our national security; and students’ economic prosperity. Five months into this pandemic, that gap has grown. For our students and teachers, the stakes are high. Teachers need training to properly navigate situations like the ones we find ourselves in today. Students must have a different educational experience if our country is to remain globally competitive and our students are going to develop the skills to navigate uncertain times and thrive in their careers.

Scott Jones: By quickly adapting to the new pandemic environment, gaps in student learning can be identified and addressed. In terms of preparing for the workplace, internships and apprenticeships—even if virtual—are important to assist with the leap into the workplace. We are finding that our accelerated curriculum in tech disciplines such as software development and cybersecurity can assist with both the hard and soft skills required in the workplace.

How can we better prepare our students and teachers for real-world crisis situations that could happen in the future?

Scott Jones: The cybersecurity and software development programs offered by Eleven Fifty Academy facilitate strategic problem-solving scenarios in a “study abroad” total immersion format. By applying some of our techniques taught in our courses to other real-world crises, we hope to further develop the creativity of individuals who will help find solutions to future problems.

Vince Bertram: Empower our students to thrive in our evolving world. Our students deserve more. We can give them more with access to activity-, project-, problem-based (APB) curriculum. STEM is more than the distinct subjects that make up the acronym—it is a way of teaching and learning. It is the decompartmentalization of education. It is the foundation of our economy. As students understand the relevance of using math and science to solve real-world problems, they develop transportable skills—like critical thinking and collaboration—that help them inside and outside the classroom. Today’s students will be our future scientists, engineers, doctors and marketers creating solutions for world-wide issues.

How are we using equity as a lens as we rethink schools?

Vince Bertram: Ensuring educational equity in the classroom starts with awareness from teachers. We all have our own unique biases that influence our worldview. Teachers can unconsciously allow their personal experiences to introduce favoritism and bias into their interactions with students. We need to ensure that access and outcomes for our students are not based on race or socio-economic status. All students deserve the opportunity to build a strong foundation of skills that allows them to be independent in making their future choices for careers.

Today, as we debate when and how schools should reopen, we should not overlook the larger opportunity in front of us: to steer our education system in another direction and undo the wrongs of the past especially as it relates to equity in our classrooms. As “back to school” approaches, we need to reflect on what we really want to go back to. The hybrid learning environment offers opportunity and flexibility to get more career and technical learning in front of a more diverse audience.

Scott Jones: Eleven Fifty Academy is a great example of how an outside-the-box approach to education can help bring down walls to help anyone—regardless of social or economic status—transform their life RAPIDLY and relatively inexpensively into a career in tech. We are just one of many schools taking a different path forward to provide options for those who wish to minimize their investment for maximum career output. At Eleven Fifty Academy, we take pride in our graduates and love how their lives have been transformed, earning two to three times what they were prior to attending the Academy. When skills and the ability to do a job are the focus for hiring a candidate, barriers to entry crumble.

What benefits might fall to those who enter the workforce after this pandemic experience?

Scott Jones: The pandemic has impacted our workforce in a number of ways, creating new ways of interacting, such as Zoom, and sometimes (often?) finding higher productivity despite social distancing. The pandemic may have also enhanced our ability to focus in a workplace that has become somewhat “noisy.” Many of us are figuring out what’s really important and are experiencing “balance” of work/home in new and non-traditional ways, which I find genuinely gratifying.

What improvements should be made to our state’s educational ecosystem to create a stronger bridge to available jobs?

Scott Jones: With non-profit Eleven Fifty Academy’s exceptionally high graduation and placement rates into high-paying jobs via our accelerated 90-day programs, the state’s educational ecosystem is now partnering to include the Academy in its curriculum, sometimes as a “gap semester” or “capstone semester” to get graduates genuinely “job ready.”

How can employers better partner with training providers and educators?

Scott Jones: Bridging the gap between training providers and educators is something Eleven Fifty Academy tackled early by creating our Employee Advisory Board. We actively invite companies who hire our graduates to influence our curriculum so that we are creating desirable future employees for these companies. We also have virtual meetups between employers, students, and graduates. Lectures by experts at local employers have been impactful for our students. We’ve also had employers to do mock interviews of our students.

Vince Bertram: We need businesses to support more holistic skill development—from technical skills to transportable skills, like problem solving, creative and critical thinking, collaboration, and communication. It is said you measure what you treasure, yet most academic tests don’t assess skills beyond knowledge-based questions. At PLTW, we’ve developed End-of-Course Assessments that test not just technical STEM knowledge, but also high-demand, transportable skills.

What best practices can companies engage in to help area school systems?

Vince Bertram: It's essential our students can see what is possible by being exposed to career opportunities sooner. This is critical to helping them make informed decisions about their futures. This can be done by connecting students with employees in their prospective field. Business leaders can also provide real-world feedback on classroom curriculum. We need businesses to be actively engaged with our students. If you are waiting until college career fairs to connect with students, you’re too late.

Scott Jones: Depending on the company’s industry and alignment, they can host “virtual” field trips and mentoring sessions to help students explore careers. It is always a wonderful idea for students to explore jobs in their district, and it is up to employers to reach out to the area schools to provide this awareness, especially in these challenging times.