Connecting the dots between learning
and employment.

Closing the Last Mile of Career Opportunity in Rural America

Like many parents, I felt my fair share of anxiety as my daughter inched closer to finishing high school. What career path would she choose? Would she stay close to home or move elsewhere? Was college in her future or would she choose a career/technical path? How would she make that delicate transition?

There was an added wrinkle—and a sense of double duty—since I currently serve as the superintendent of the school district that my daughter attended. But as the leader of a rural district in a small farming community, the questions my family grappled with were similar to those our neighbors and families throughout the district and across the state may face.

Rural School Challenges (and Opportunities)

Schools in rural America face unique challenges. Nationally, one in 10 students attends a school in a remote or fringe district. In many parts of the country, rural schools struggle to access the same quality and quantity of digital resources as their urban and suburban peers. Small school districts struggle to muster the same buying power as larger, better-funded districts. Partnerships with employers and community groups are available, but not nearly as abundant.

But with these challenges comes an opportunity to ignite innovative changes. Connecting rural students to digital learning and support can unlock opportunities that would otherwise be unavailable due to geography. Make no mistake, there’s no substitute for great teaching, high academic standards and great school leaders. But as a rural district leader, I have become a firm believer in the power of putting technology into the hands of students.

While we tend to think about education innovation as something that takes place in big-city school districts and on college campuses, the opportunity to innovate is felt deeply in America’s rural communities.

For example, take my own school district in Melba, Idaho. Five years ago, despite one of the highest graduation rates in Idaho, only 32% of our students were attending college. But simply checking the box on high school graduation would not get them where they needed to be. By 2018, 61% of jobs in Idaho will require education or training beyond high school, but only one-third of the state’s residents are qualified to fill those positions. The question has become: how do we connect our graduates with a well-paying job after high school?

As any high school administrator can attest, encouraging students to explore and select a career path is already a tall order. For students in Melba, there is an additional challenge posed by living in a rural area. How can we connect students with opportunities that broaden their career and educational options? For our district and many others, technology has played a crucial role in closing the last-mile divide between geography and career opportunity.

Our District’s Solution

We engaged early on with the Idaho PTECH Network, which since 2014 has helped Idaho high school students complete dual credit for college and explore career pathways in high-growth, high-demand industries in Idaho. To reach rural districts, PTECH partners with InsideTrack to provide executive-style coaching to students to help reinforce student success in the program.

The coaches help students develop critical skills, such as time management, self-discipline, self-advocacy and decision-making. The one-to-one approach—delivered through phone calls, email, text messaging, mobile app and other technologies—enables each student to explore their interests and strengths and recognize the vast career opportunities available to them.

Without technology, accessing this type of coaching would have been a serious challenge for students in the far-flung districts of Idaho. But PTECH and InsideTrack are already making this support available in 18 Idaho schools statewide, circumventing some of the challenges that education professionals face in reaching students. Using remote coaching, our school district has been able to support students, regardless of location.

The Results

What results have we seen? Students are now receiving college credit for high school work. They can access career and educational opportunities throughout the state, and have a trained coach to help them through that process.

As both a parent and an educator, the results have been tremendous. I had no idea that my daughter was interested in computer programming. She didn’t know either—until she enrolled in PTECH as a sophomore. Through the support of her PTECH coach, she’s now majoring in Degree, Gaming, Interactive Media and Mobile Technology at Boise State University, and is creating apps, software, and games for education.

In addition to the expanded opportunities that coaching has provided, students build productive and lasting connections with their coaches. After my daughter learned she received a scholarship to Boise State University, the first person she called to share the good news—after her proud mom and dad, of course—was her PTECH coach, Hayley.

I’ve seen firsthand that geography doesn’t have to determine destiny—and for any student, especially those in rural districts, the possibilities are endless.

For more, see:

Andrew Grover is Superintendent of Melba School District. 

Hackfort 3 – The Student Perspective

by Nat Akin, Idaho Distance Education Academy

There is a common misconception about Computer Geeks. Most people think that we are “off” in some way, terrible at social interaction, or something of that sort. While it is true that most computer related jobs are chosen by introverted types of people, that doesn’t mean we are all robots. However, I can say with a fair amount of certainty that Computer Geek is the proper terminology, because we are geeks. But that isn’t a bad thing, in fact, I personally think it is a fantastic thing.

I can say that because I spent a weekend with PTECH’s other computer geeks, and we are all total geeks. From the minute we got off the plane, we did nothing but talk about the intricacies of VR (Virtual Reality) vs. AR (Augmented Reality). The conversation was over the head of all the people on the bus who weren’t computer geeks. But for the computer geeks, it was incredibly satisfying to get those thoughts out in the air without having to stop and explain the basics of the medium. The conversation lasted all the way from the Airport to the Hotel.

Once we got the hotel, it went about as well as can be expected for a bunch of relatively introverted people. But the awkward “I don’t know you” silence didn’t last long. As soon as we got some caffeine in us, we were talking about Game consoles and our favorite programming mishaps. There was so much laughing at this point, we got strange looks from the other people in the lobby of the hotel. Which normally would have set us on edge had we been alone. But to steal a popularly used phrase, we had finally found our people. For the whole weekend, having found our people—we felt on top of the world.  

For a whole weekend we weren’t afraid to ask dumb questions or to try new things. With our people around, we could ask Boise’s brightest questions with no shame of looking foolish. We taught each other things, we troubleshooted problems none of us had seen, and most importantly, we tried new things. We all spent five or more minutes in a VR headset throwing and making blocks. We all looked strange doing it, but we were all so excited about the opportunity to be doing it that none of us cared. We all went around trying to convince those of us who were unsure about it, to go and do this thing that makes you look strange because it was so much fun. We didn’t care how it made us look, because we had an army of 12 there to back us up and encourage us to try the strange, but amazingly fun, thing.

That is why I think the trip was so important. For the most part, this was the first time a bunch of Computer geeks could feel totally on top of the world with no fear of being foolish, because foolish and strange was the norm. We calculated the mass of a cat with wings as it traveled at the speed of sound, we listened to music way too loud and for way too late, we made movie references, and generally speaking, we were goofballs. We were goofballs because we had finally found other goofballs who share a passion for what we want to do.

I think that’s the best part of the trip, when I think back to it all, what I remember is the laughter. I hadn’t laughed so much in my entire life. I hadn’t been so willing to ask questions or to learn from people my own age. I had never before in my life been so proud to be a computer geek. 

Hackfort 3 and PTECH

Hackfort_Idaho PTECH Students

Imagine a world where virtual reality is the norm and many experiences like training, sight seeing, and entertainment are readily available. With the development of virtual reality, these experiences can erase physical limitations and allow a user to experience an escape into a different space all together. This is just what the PTECH students who attended Hackfort 3 were challenged to imagine.   

At Hackfort 3, students had the opportunity to hear about the innovations in virtual reality and to be part of the conversation about where this technology can take us. They heard about the shortage of content for virtual reality and how game developers are being pressed into service to develop virtual reality content. Students also learned about the various equipment and platforms being used to deliver and drive content creation from industry experts.

Students were then challenged to develop their own 3-D maze game for a PTECH contest. They used Unity to create their games and worked in groups or independently. While many students chose to work “independently,” it was clear that all of the students were collaborating, sharing ideas, and helping one another toward the same goal – completing a functional game. Students worked late into the night and overcame many challenges to deliver a game to contest judges the following morning.

The winning entrants were:

  • 1 st place - Nat Akin (I-DEA) and Devina Orndorff (Marsing)
  • 2nd place – Samantha Wilcox (Weiser)
  • 3rd place – Tate Anderst (Kuna)
  • Judge’s Award – Brandon Michelsen and Caleb Elsom

Each game was unique and interactive. Students with more experience added elements such as textures and directional camera movement, but all completed the challenge. The judging was very difficult and the judges were a little motion sick by the end of the judging; however, all of the games were creative, engaging, and challenging to win.

Over the weekend, students also explored the idea of employability skills. They were given five employability skills to focus on and were randomly rewarded if “caught” demonstrating these skills during the weekend. The skills focused on were: communication, teamwork, integrity, initiative, and problem solving. Not only were students rewarded and complimented for demonstrating these highly sought after skills, but the students who consistently displayed these skills were awarded an Employability Skills Certificate at the end of the weekend.

The winning students for the Employability Skills Challenge were:

  • Brandon Michelsen (Forrest Bird Charter School)
  •  Damien Spencer (Kellogg High School)
  • Wyatt Huckaby (Forrest Bird Charter School)
  • Caleb Rice (Kuna High School)
  • Nat Akin (Idaho Distance Education Academy)
  • Tate Anderst (Kuna High School)
  • Devina Orndorff (Marsing High School)

It was great weekend full of tech conversations and building friendships. We can’t wait to come back next year! 

Bridging the Gap Between Students and Industry through 21st-Century Employability Skills

Brightly colored paper peppered the tables around the room at our most recent PTECH partners and supporters meeting. Listed on them were skills like problem solving, initiative, decision making and time management. The discussion centered around employability skills – those 21st century skills most desired in today’s workforce candidates.

What skills are expected of entry level job candidates?

Which skills can be taught?

How do we help students be better prepared with these skills before entering the workforce?

Jay Larsen of the Idaho Technology Council wondered how we can get more students in computer science, a field that breeds critical thinking and problem solving, which are key skills for anyone working in the technology field.

Heather Sprague, VP of HR at Saint Alphonsus, voiced the importance of finding candidates with strong communication skills and integrity. Without those two skills, candidates will not be successful in their jobs.

Angelique Pruitt, an HR manager at Idaho Power, spoke passionately about how not enough job candidates possess the basic personal and social skills necessary to succeed in the workplace.

As I looked around the room and listened to the discussion, I noticed several themes emerging:

First, different sectors place a premium on different skills. For example, our health partners discussed the importance of empathy above other skills discussed, and affirmed that just about every patient facing employee works in teams – making teamwork a mandatory skill for any employee in this track.

Another theme that emerged is that these skills are hierarchically related to each other. For example, one group laid out ‘Applied Knowledge’ as the number one skill they valued in employees, a skill which is supported by sound decision making, problem solving, initiative and critical thinking skills. These insights together indicate a need to develop a tailored, targeted approach to make the best use of scarce resources as we develop the successful employee of the future.

So what can we do to help Idaho students be better prepared for the workforce?

The Idaho PTECH Network is developing a system of experiential learning activities focused on developing these employability skills.  These activities range from field trips and meeting with our industry partners to identifying and reinforcing skills with our remote coaching interactions to interactive design-thinking challenges with One Stone, a student-led organization focused on creating tomorrow’s leaders. 

As we continue our discussion with industry partners relating to these skills, The Idaho PTECH Network will develop ways to measure, develop and demonstrate these employability skills. 

What can industry and education leaders do?

As we refine the prioritized skills our industry partners value, Idaho PTECH is working to develop these key employability skills in students through existing school based touch points. But it’s hard to imagine doing that without providing ‘learning by doing’ opportunities with our engaged industry partners.

We will continue to seek out work based learning opportunities through PTECH experiential activities, including field trips, job shadows and internships. Each of these activities presents an opportunity to develop industry specific employability skills to ensure students hit the job running.

The Idaho PTECH Network values all of our industry partners' and supporters' input and feedback on employability skills.  We look forward to continuing this work and developing stronger connections between Idaho’s students and industry.

Does Teaching Kids To Get 'Gritty' Help Them Get Ahead?

Is it possible to teach grit? And if so, what is the best way to do it?

It's become the new buzz phrase in education: "Got grit?"

Around the nation, schools are beginning to see grit as key to students' success — and just as important to teach as reading and math.

Experts define grit as persistence, determination and resilience; it's that je ne sais quoi that drives one kid to practice trumpet or study Spanish for hours — or years — on end, while another quits after the first setback.

"This quality of being able to sustain your passions, and also work really hard at them, over really disappointingly long periods of time, that's grit," says Angela Duckworth, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania who coined the term "grit" — and won a MacArthur "genius grant" for it.

"It's a very, I think, American idea in some ways — really pursuing something against all odds," she says.

Duckworth says her research shows grit is actually a better predictor of success than IQ or other measures when it comes to achievements as varied as graduating from West Point or winning the National Spelling Bee.

Even the Obama administration is now on the "grit" bandwagon. A 2013 report from the Department of Education laments that kids are learning to "do school," but aren't learning the skills they need in life.

But can grit be taught?

Read more here.

Low-Wage Workers Are Finding Poverty Harder to Escape

Good story about how hard it is to escape poverty in minimum wage jobs, and the possible future of our PTECH students without PTECH.

JeraLee Kincaid, 23, is an $8.50-an-hour cashier who works at the checkout booth at a parking garage next to the Marriott Courtyard hotel downtown. A solid student in high school, Ms. Kincaid, who lives with her mother, planned to study computer programming in college, but instead her family decided that she needed to help pay the medical bills of a 5-year-old niece who has leukemia.

When Volkswagen opened a $1 billion assembly plant in 2011, 80,000 people applied for 2,000 jobs paying an average of $19.50 an hour. Many low-wage workers, like Ms. McCurdy — a high school dropout who later obtained her high school equivalency diploma — would have loved to work there, but they faced difficulty mastering the math tests given for jobs that involve advanced machinery.

“We understand that more individuals have to get some kind of higher education degree or certificate to have a chance in this world,” said Chattanooga’s mayor, Andy Berke. “We don’t want the South to be a place where businesses go to find low-wage, low-education jobs. That’s a long-term problem that midsized cities in the South face.

Read the full story here.