There were some groans back in August when Laura Lavallee told sixth graders at Tomahawk Elementary they’d be talking about their career prospects this year.
“Some of them were a little reluctant,” said Lavallee, the STEM teacher at the Shawnee Mission school. “‘This is silly! I’m in sixth grade! My career is so far away! Why do I need to think about it now?’”
But when she started talking about all the cool jobs there were in science, technology, engineering and math right here in Kansas City, the sixth graders sat up a little straighter. Their eyes widened when Lavallee said some of them might even have jobs that haven't been invented yet.
She had their attention.
Across the metro, school districts are weaving career exploration into the curriculum, starting when kids are really young. Shawnee Mission is no exception.
The Center for Academic Achievement is where high school students take career exploration classes, but it’s not uncommon to see much younger students there. Principal Ryan Flurry said he’s “lost track” of how many tours he’s given to elementary students this school year.
“Career exploration is important,” Flurry said. “You need to do it early so that once they get into high school and college, they have an idea of what they want to do.”
He has a whole spiel.
“Many times parents ask kids, ‘Where are you going to college?’” Flurry told the Tomahawk Elementary sixth-graders when they visited in November. “They should be asking, ‘Why are you going to college?’”
Flurry told the sixth graders that college was expensive. Really expensive. Too expensive for them to waste time figuring out what they wanted to be when they grew up. They could figure it out now, and when they were in high school, they could take classes at his school, and maybe earn some scholarship money. In fact, one of his students had just won more than $30,000 at a culinary arts competition.
“Whoa,” a sixth-grader whispered, impressed.
Now that Flurry had them hooked, they went to a classroom upstairs, where high schoolers in the aerospace engineering program were learning about satellites. They dropped into the animation lab. The sixth-graders had yogurt ruined for them by the biotechnology teacher, who told them it was bacteria. And they got to see a dissection in progress on the virtual cadaver table.
“The students can go through, give him a disease, then look at what happens to his lungs,” Flurry explained as the sixth-graders crowded around. “I don’t know how to give him pneumonia, but the students do.”
The tour impressed sixth-grader Ainsley Pyle, who wants to be a trauma surgeon when she grows up.
“I really enjoy learning about science and human anatomy,” she said as her classmates got back on the bus. “I definitely would like to do the medical program.”
It’s important to get students who want to enter STEM fields into the pipeline as soon as possible. A student who wants to be a doctor someday needs four years of high school math and science, and most districts have programs that will allow motivated students to graduate with an industry credential or college credit.
Taking elementary students on tours of the career center lets them know it’s an option when they get to high school. Even kindergartners and first graders get to go on tours.
“We really jazz it up (when they come through),” Flurry said. “We get the high school students involved. They make slime in biotech and listen to their hearts and lungs in medical sciences.”
All Shawnee Mission elementary school students get STEM instruction. A few schools, like Tomahawk, have STEM teachers. Tomahawk students get math and science instruction in their homerooms, then come to Lavallee’s class to dive deeper into STEM topics and do more experiments.
Recently she taught third-graders about flight.
“Remember when we talked about what part of an airplane creates thrust?” she asked. “What if an airplane doesn’t have any kind of a powered engine?”
“They just glide,” third-grader Jackson Gentry said, eager to build and test his own glider the next time they had class.
Math is Jackson’s favorite subject.
“I just really like all the calculations,” he said. “It makes your brain have a workout, basically.”
Last summer, Lavallee got a grant to learn about STEM careers in Johnson County. The students get excited whenever professionals come to Tomahawk to talk about what they do for a living.
“When they’re younger, they want to be a vet or a teacher,” Lavallee said. “When they get older, it turns into a certain type of science field.”
This week KCUR is publishing stories about career and technical education. You can read more stories about how schools are preparing students for the jobs they’ll have after graduating here.
Elle Moxley covers education for KCUR. You can reach her on Twitter @ellemoxley.