Students Branch Out With STEM Job Shadowing


Microburst Learning gives students a virtual taste of otherwise inaccessible careers – and businesses benefit, too


It’s a positive thing that South Carolina requires students to undertake a job shadow or other career exposure while in middle and high school. Yet gaining access to a variety of fields – especially those in related to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) – can prove difficult.

Such obstacles as manufacturing plant floors where minors are not allowed, or rural areas where youth have few options nearby, can deny many kids the opportunity to become engaged in broad range of career options.

Unless they have Internet access, that is. For about seven years, Microburst Learning has offered all South Carolina students the chance to explore numerous career options through Web-based job shadows. It doesn’t hurt sponsoring companies, either, which gain an inexpensive way to get their names in front of young people while helping to improve the future applicant pool.

A recent study from the Medical University of South Carolina showed that the Nursing MicroCareerBurst alone was more effective than in-person presentations – or even in combination with a presentation – at interesting students in careers in the field. It also improved their perceptions of the field as compared to ideal careers.

Sarah Langdon, director of videography with Microburst Learning, said she is unable to identify how many Upstate students are participating, but more than 19,000 high school students overall have accessed the MicroCareerBursts between February and May of this year.



Each online session begins with recognition of its sponsors, whose names reappear throughout the lesson. Funding the mechatronics Microburst brought an easy win to his company, said Marshall Millican, South Carolina representative for Charlotte-based Carolina Training Associates.

Mechatronics is the operation and maintenance of robotic functions in manufacturing and other sectors. The company provides technology-related educational programs at the Pickens County Career and Technology Center, the J. Harley Bonds Career Center in Greenville and Daniel Morgan Technology Center in Spartanburg.

Carolina Training joined in the sponsorship with two of its suppliers, Depco and Festo Didactic.

“Our interest was to make more students aware [of mechatronics], what it’s about and choose it as a career field,” Millican said. Increased interest leads to more educational programs, and those programs will need materials, he said. “We saw Microburst and what they were trying to do as a natural advertising campaign, you might say, to entice students into mechatronics.”

Carolina Training is a small family-run business. Millican said the sponsorship cost his company between $2,000 and $3,000, well worth it because “there’s no way we could go out and talk to all those people.”


Screen Shot 2013-08-15 at 4.24.35 PMA GROWING PROGRAM


Microburst continues to develop its inventory and will have more than 80 job shadows online by January. The lessons are available to all South Carolinians. Langdon said most users are in grades seven through 12.

Clusters with the most offerings include architecture and construction; health science; information technology; and science, technology, engineering and math.

The program provides free 24-hour access to interactive online job shadow simulations. They last about 20 minutes each, comprising a series of slides with short videos and games.

The program also allows educators to track students’ interest via a mandatory survey at the end of the lesson, which helps them make suggestions to students that are more in line with their actual interests. The lessons also satisfy Education and Economic Development Act (EEDA) requirements for career exploration. Schools are required to create such opportunities as well as career plans for students beginning in the sixth grade.




For employers, catching middle school students’ interest is crucial for recruitment.

“It is a known fact,” said Valerie Patterson, communications manager and manager of education centers at Duke Energy. “We believe middle school is where you have to start talking to them, especially because this is a STEM-related industry.”

The company focuses its career days on middle schools and has education centers at three plants, but job shadows are pretty much out of the question because of safety concerns.

By the second semester of the 10th grade, when students are required to declare a career focus, they often are already at a disadvantage, Hill said. Area corporations such as Michelin, General Electric and BMW have programs that hire students part-time in the second year of the program, then full-time upon graduation.

Early awareness could also ensure that students are actually ready for opportunities when they are available. For instance, Hill said 30 to 40 percent of the students who apply for the mechatronics program find that they do not have the basic algebra skills needed. That math is learned in middle school.




These efforts would matter little if demand were not so high right now in fields like mechatronics. For the past three years, graduates of the mechatronics program at Greenville Technical College have had jobs before their spring graduation, said Philip Hill, interim department head in the mechatronics department. They make $25 per hour or more, compared to the state average of $14.52 for all jobs, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

A solid stable of workers with the right skills is crucial for companies, never more so than when things go wrong. For instance, Millican said a machine malfunction on the line at BMW could cost the company between $2,000 and $8,000 per minute.

“Having a technician who can fix that machine five minutes faster [means the employee] is going to pay for himself pretty quick,” he said.


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