While it may seem premature to ask middle school students to begin thinking about careers, one of the key indicators of future academic and career success is exposure to career awareness activities in grades 6-8. As an eighth-grade teacher, I think it’s important to begin these conversations with my students so they can be thinking about areas that pique their interest and begin preparing for college and career.

Career and technical education (CTE) has evolved over the years — at both the secondary and postsecondary levels. These learning pathways open the door to skills based and hands-on experiential learning that teaches students real-world knowledge and increasingly provides opportunities for dual enrollment, industry-recognized credentials, and meaningful work-based learning experiences.

Knowing the impact this exposure can have, I was excited to participate in the Rosie’s Girls and Advanced Manufacturing Technical Education Camp during the summer of 2021. Hosted by Hamblen County Career and Technical Education teachers from West High School, the four-day camp was centered on manufacturing and other technical professions and was designed to expose students to the many facets of CTE and opportunities that are available in high school and beyond.

During the camp, students were introduced to the elements of technical professions by visiting a local automotive industry, Mahle, where they were able to observe how these technical skills are used in everyday life. This opportunity allowed students to see the importance of skilled trades and their contribution worldwide. Next, we visited our local TCAT (Tennessee College of Applied Technology) where students were able to see specific skills being taught in action and the postsecondary opportunities available through TCAT institutions.

The remaining three days of the camp exposed students to welding, engineering, machining, and electrical work, giving students the knowledge and training to put their skills to work to construct and create their very own electrical switch box. They also designed a light by welding the base, machining the plastic holders, used a computer-aided design (CAD) to create a personalized sign, and then wired the electrical components for the lights to create the final product.

Developing these intricate skills allowed students to see the opportunities that are available and exposed them to all aspects that encompass CTE. These hands-on activities also gave students the confidence to create a plan that prepares them for college and career.

Within the state of Tennessee, there are 16 career clusters offered through the CTE program. Of those 16 clusters, Hamblen County Schools offers 14. Career clusters identify the knowledge and skills needed to follow a pathway toward a career goal and provide context for exploring the many occupational options available. These clusters include: audio/video technology communications, hospitality and tourism, health science, manufacturing and science technology engineering, and math, just to name a few. The clusters provide a path for students to earn a specific skill-based education that better prepares them for higher education or to enter the workforce. 

While the Hamblen County Rosie’s Girls and Advanced Manufacturing Camp provided students an introduction to skills and career possibilities, it taught me something, too. I now have the knowledge to help students see the opportunities available to them through the CTE program and help them find the skills that interest them for college, career and life.

At the middle school level, the goal is not for students to select a career but to introduce them to the range of programs that exist and prepare them to make decisions about high school coursework and, ultimately, their future. During the 2021-2022 school year, I am approaching my teaching with an open mind and aim to expose my students to the endless opportunities open to them.

Erica Carey is an eighth-grade English Language Arts teacher at Lincoln Heights Middle School where she serves as Hamblen County Learning Leader, English Language Arts Department Leader, and a mentor teacher to pre-service teachers. In 2019-2020, she was named Lincoln Heights Middle School Teacher of the Year and the 2020 Hamblen County Middle School Teacher of the Year. In addition to teaching, she has served on Hamblen County’s ELA Adoption Committee and assisted with school and district level professional development. Currently, she is one of 30 educators participating in the 2020-2021 cohort of SCORE’s Tennessee Educator Fellowship. Find her on Twitter @EricaPCareyTN.