When students are young, their interests are varied, and they possess a wide-eyed optimism that permits them to believe they can be anything they want. Over time, though, some lose their confidence. “By the time they reach the 11th and 12th grade, they’ve become jaded. They listen to their parents, the media and their favorite TV show. Maybe they fail a class or two and have less confidence in what they can be,” said Scott Brewster, of Triad Interactive Media.
To restore that optimism and provide middle and high school students with a set of tools that enable them to assess their skills and interests, Michelle Obama and the U.S. Department of Education called for app developers to design educational apps that help students identify education and career options while increasing the capacity of guidance counselors to assist students in planning for their futures. It’s called the Reach Higher Career App Challenge.
Last July, five finalists demonstrated their ideas to a panel of judges at the White House. Brewster’s app, Hats and Ladders, took first place and earned Triad Interactive Media and its development partner Electric Fun Stuff $100,000. Hats and Ladders will be widely available in the fall and will run on multiple hand-held devices, laptops and desktop computers.
Meeting the Needs of All Students
Brewster who holds a Ph.D. in education noticed a lack of guidance counseling and educational apps that help low-income and ESL students find their career path. The American Counseling Association reports that in 2013, the national average student-to-school-counselor ratio for K-12 counselors was 482:1 with peaks of 880:1 in Arizona and 826:1 in California. Students receive only minutes of in-person time with their counselor annually as they prepare to make important postsecondary education and career decisions. These staggering numbers drove Brewster to develop Hats and Ladders.
Since his audience is middle and high school students, Brewster designed his app to be as simple and straight forward as possible. To engage ESL students, the app employs visuals, so they “can figure out what’s going on and not be overwhelmed by information. (The app) uses language that is more accessible, more common and not overly scholarly,” Brewster said.
Keeping the ESL student in mind, Hats and Ladders offers translation between English and Spanish. Much of the material will be pulled from the occupational network database published by the U.S. Department of Labor. “A lot of the government data is presented in (both English and Spanish),” Brewster said.To make the app more appealing, his team is editing this verbose data down to the most critical information.
Peter Sibley, CEO of INFORM Journeys, one of the Reach Higher App Challenge finalists who received $25,000, said there is no dearth of career information for high school students; it’s just difficult navigating and digesting the information. “We have a great deal of knowledge and information that is almost doubling at an extraordinary rate, and yet it’s fragmented and truly not available to the people who need it most,” Sibley said.
Making It Fun
Hats and Ladders and Journeys, Sibley’s entry in the challenge, use two entirely different approaches to engage students in career counseling. Hats and Ladders presents students with a game environment. After devoting considerable time and resources researching game-based learning, Triad and Electric Fun Stuff concluded that presenting the app as a game would best engage students. “That’s our interest and our background and where we typically work. We saw a void in what other companies were providing in terms of career education and most are not game driven,” Brewster said.
Journeys uses what Sibley calls a “new old innovation.” His app features an interactive learning map that provides students or guidance counselors turn-by-turn instructions and resources to help them find a career destination. “It’s really a life map. When someone uses it, (the app) should help them through their life. It’s not just a one-time thing,” Sibley said.
Students start by typing a career interest into Journeys’ search bar. Using location services Journeys places correlated content and relative career information as interactive locations on a map. Students explore further by clicking on a location and interacting with customizable widgets from sources like Indeed.com. These widgets allow students to see the types of opportunities that are available in their area.
Hats and Ladders engages students by allowing them to engage in role playing scenarios. The goal is to acquire as many hats and climb as many ladders as possible. Students begin by building a profile, which, of course, means choosing and dressing an avatar. Like today’s most popular dating apps, the profile is based on swipes. Statements that describe a skill or personality trait come up on the app, for example “I’m a creative person” or “I love to solve problems.” When students agree with a statement, they swipe right. If not, they swipe left.
As the profile builds, statements grow more complex, becoming simple skill-building activities. “It might give the student some kind of problem where they’ll have to think critically about math or science. It’s just an on-going assessment of what that student likes and maybe something they have a skill in,” Brewster said.
When the profile building process is complete, the app provides students with hats, each of which represent a career. Students can try each hat on and wear it for a week or so. At first, the app offers just a few hats, but the more the student uses it, the more hats they get. “We have something we call A Day in the Life. Say one of the jobs that came up for you is veterinarian. You can wear this hat for a period of time and play a game. You are given a scenario. For example, an animal comes into your office that has recently been hit by a car. So here is a series of events that put you in the life of a veterinarian for a couple weeks and give you real world experience,” Brewster said.
With each hat comes a series of ladders that students must climb. Those interested in being veterinarians, for example, may have to perform some research on veterinarian medicine. Or they may have to speak with a real veterinarian and submit a report. Brewster plans to partner with other online organizations, like diy.org and roadtripnation.com to integrate their resources into the ladders and make it more varied.
Students can use Hats and Ladders on their own, however, they’ll find greater value if they learn how to use it from a guidance counselor or a teacher. Hats and Ladders helps counselors and teachers restore the wide-eyed optimism students had as youngsters. “We want to start with students who are young. The idea is that the counselor or the teacher will tell that student, ‘You know you can be anything you want, and I have this app that is going to help you identify where you might fit into this world of careers,’” Brewster said. •