Middle School Career Exploration: How to Get Started [Tips & Resources]

Kai Frazier
October 27, 2022

We all remember Career Day or Bring Your Parent to School Day in middle school. It was an exciting opportunity to explore different occupations and discover a path you can be passionate about. Maybe you wanted to be an astronaut, or a lawyer inspired you. Perhaps you grew up to become one of those occupations, or maybe there was an entirely new occupation to explore when you entered the workplace. Either way, the value of middle school career exploration can't be denied. 

Career exploration in today's middle schools looks very different from a single career day. As a result, career exploration has become a cornerstone of education. American Student Assistance research shows that middle school is the most effective time for career guidance, and there's proof that it works. According to their survey of middle school and high school students: 

  • 87% of middle school students are interested in ways to match their skills and interests with potential careers.
  • 85% are interested in ways to learn the education and experience requirements needed for the careers they're interested in.

In today's classroom, career exploration and preparation focus heavily on STEM. That's because the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that employment in STEM occupations will grow 10.8% in the next ten years. Further, STEM occupations offer over half the median annual wage compared to non-STEM professions. That wage gap is expected to increase over time.

In addition, curricula often combines core curriculum with themes centered around social-emotional learning, career and technical education (CTE), and 21st-century learning skills. Combined, these skills make up a promising young employee, regardless of whether they pursue a college degree. 

Kai XR's career exploration role is connecting kids with the world through interactive 360° virtual experiences. Through virtual field trips, VR games for kids, and a new digital makerspace, our digital learning platform puts kids in the driver's seat and empowers them to dream big. That's what career exploration is all about, after all! 

So what does all of this mean for middle schoolers and educators? We'll tell you! 

In this article, we'll discuss: 

  • Career exploration in today's middle schools
  • Why career exploration is important
  • How educators can improve career exploration tactics

Let's explore! 

What Is Career Exploration in Middle School?

Middle school is a time of significant change. Students are learning about themselves and the world around them. In addition, they begin to develop their own ideas about what they want to do when they grow up, so it's the perfect time to explore potential career paths. 

Career exploration is an activity that gives kids a chance to learn about various careers, discover what types of skills are required for those jobs, and decide if any of the trades interest them enough to pursue further education or training after high school graduation. It also helps students identify their current interests and strengths and helps them understand how their interests and strengths connect to potential careers. 

There are many different ways to explore careers in middle school. Some career exploration activities include:

  • Skills and personality assessments 
  • Classroom speakers
  • Virtual job site field trips
  • Volunteering at local organizations or businesses
  • Taking part in internships and apprenticeships
  • Exploration of various occupations and industries
  • Exploration of related personal interests

The possibilities are endless! An essential part of career exploration planning is ensuring these activities align with potential career paths and students' interests. 

At its core, career exploration is one of the critical factors to career readiness. The Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) defines career readiness as the ability to:

  • describe clear future and occupational goals;
  • identify high demand, high wage opportunities; and
  • describe future learning and postsecondary training and education that align with their goals. 

In 2019, the Coalition for Career Development (CCD) published a report titled "Career Readiness for All", highlighting the importance of career readiness, a framework to meet the challenge, and benefits of career development. The framework outlines five pillars for creating high-quality career development systems: 

  1. Prioritize career planning
  2. Provide professional career advising
  3. Emphasize applied and work-based learning
  4. Provide high-quality career development technology
  5. Ensure accountability 

In the same report, the CCD advises that school systems prioritize career planning no later than middle school. This is because middle school students have completed early childhood development and are now prepared to absorb the critical thinking, social-emotional, and technical skills required to forge a career path. In addition, requiring students to develop and maintain a personal Career and Academic Plan that aligns with their career and life goals can keep them focused on their path forward. 

Professional career advising ensures that career development becomes a priority in schools. Appointing a professional counselor to oversee this work is a great way to guarantee that. In addition, they can connect students to resources that measure their skills and interests and help administrate students' Career and Academic Plans. 

An emphasis on applied and work-based learning is one of the most critical elements of career development for students. This is where they can get the most real-life interaction with potential career paths. The most exposure to a vocation through internships, shadowing, and apprenticeships, the better! While these career exploration activities are traditionally carried out in person, technology has virtually allowed students to participate in career exploration and skills-building, which leads us to the next pillar: technology.

Providing high-quality career development technology is critical in today's middle schools. Thanks to the rise of STEM-related jobs, technology and the ability to use it are more important than ever. Educators and students should be provided with technology and tools to develop the necessary skills.

Finally, ensuring accountability in school systems is the only way to ensure that students have equal and quality access to career pathway programs and training that supports their futures. 

While building an effective career exploration program can sound daunting, the benefits are hard to ignore. 

Benefits of Middle School Career Exploration 

At one time, choosing a career path was simple. Fifty years ago, degrees in Data Science and Video Game Design weren't even a figment of the imagination. Some kids trained with their parents to take over the family business. Others attended a technical school or became an apprentice to become a mechanic. These days, the possible career paths are endless. 

Middle school career exploration can help kids better understand all of those possibilities earlier, providing plenty of time to refine their options and begin to develop their skills. And this isn't just a gut feeling. There's research to prove it. For example, a study published in Professional School Counseling found that students begin narrowing down their career options and identifying their aspirations as early as nine years old! In addition, an ACT study, The Forgotten Middle, found that the academic performance of 8th graders had a more significant impact on the student's college and career readiness at high school graduation than any experience or skills they may gain in high school. 

There are a lot of advantages to early career exploration, including the following:

  • Students take more time to learn about themselves, what they like, and what they're good at.
  • Students can develop 21st-century skills, such as critical thinking, collaboration, and communication.
  • Students can identify the right specialized programs and electives during high school.
  • Students are more engaged when they understand the tangible outcomes. 

More engaged students result in more capable and successful employees! 

How Educators and Schools Can Support Career Exploration

Career exploration for middle school students is not just about what we want to be when we grow up. It's also about discovering how far away that dream is. It's also most effective when it's an interactive, collaborative process that engages students, parents, teachers, and counselors.

So how can educators drive career exploration in their classrooms? We see the process as a three-pronged approach: 

  1. Establish points of interest
  2. Develop employable skills
  3. Align curriculum with career readiness requirements 

Let's talk through the details of each! 

Establish Points of Interest

The best way for a middle schooler to explore potential careers is by getting an idea of what kinds of jobs exist and what they entail. To start, encourage students to consider what activities they like and dislike. For example, if a child enjoys computer games and also excels at math, they may benefit from looking into a computer or website programming career. 

Many ways to measure skills and interests to help middle schoolers get started. Personal assessments such as the O*Net Interest Profiler or Jung's Typology Assessment aren't a silver bullet to discovering the perfect career path. However, they can help students identify their skills and preferences when exploring different options. In addition, these assessments help students understand how they learn best, what motivates them, and their strengths and weaknesses in various areas of learning and doing. 

Once students have a better understanding of where they excel, they can begin exploring different careers. Unfortunately, while city schools often have access to a wider variety of potential occupations, more rural school systems may be limited in their options. 

Thanks to technology, every classroom has the chance to explore an endless array of careers. Platforms like Kai XR build engaging content centered around high-demand and high-skilled careers, such as Aerospace Engineering and Entrepreneurship. (In a recent Microsoft survey, 62% of Gen Zers indicated they have started or intend to start a business!) And the best part, there's proof these virtual experiences are just as effective! 

In a literature review about immersive virtual reality in education, researchers found that: 

  • Most research on virtual reality education focuses on STEM outcomes
  • VR is a powerful teaching tool for subjects that require spatial understanding 
  • VR can train individuals to do tasks in the real world 

A virtual experience can be just as impactful, if not more impactful, than a visit to a job site. It can go beyond exposure and quickly begin to develop employable skills. 

Develop Employable Skills

Once students have a future career, it's time to build those skills! 

While middle school may not dive into medical microbiology or the basics of persuasion, students can still learn transferable skills that will help them better understand and apply this coursework. 

Three groups of essential transferrable skills can help prepare all middle school students for their future occupations: 

  1. 21st-century skills
  2. Social-emotional skills 
  3. Career and technical education (CTE) skills

21st-century skills for students are skills that will set students up for success in the digital age of communication and exponential technical growth. These skills include:

  • learning and innovation skills, such as creativity, critical thinking, and collaboration; 
  • information, media, and technology skills, such as media literacy and the ability to utilize technology effectively; and 
  • life and career skills such as flexibility, self-direction, cross-cultural skills, and leadership. 

These competencies take core subjects like history, geography, math, science, and language arts and combine them with a way of thinking that helps them relate and translate globally. 

Social-emotional skills begin developing during early childhood, but it's essential to maintain these skills as students discover new kinds of emotions and new cultures. In addition, social-emotional learning in the classroom can form better relationships with classmates, which translates to being an empathetic team member in the workforce. Students can also develop traits like resilience and positivity due to social-emotional learning. 

The benefits of Career and Technical Education (CTE) skills are evident. CTE skills distill 21st-century and social-emotional skills into a career-oriented mindset. In addition, schools should help students understand the connections between their studies and the jobs available in their communities. For example, it helps students ask the question, how can my ability to talk to anyone with ease help me become a successful salesperson? Or how can my math skills help me become an architect? 

So how can educators be sure they're equipping their students with these skills? First, it requires some examination and adjustments to the curriculum and teaching methods. 

Adjust Curriculum 

Teachers must adjust their middle school career exploration curriculum to align with those passions to help students discover the career of their dreams and develop skills to achieve them. For example, educators can offer lessons introducing concepts related to those fields and engage students with hands-on activities. 

A few ways educators can incorporate career-based learning into their classroom are through:

  • Career-related project-based learning 
  • Projects and activities that develop employable skills
  • Offering exploratory and introductory CTE courses
  • Academic career planning with digital tools
  • Enable interactions with real-life jobs and industries

Thanks to technology, educators have a variety of methods to do so at their disposal. 

Tech tools for the classroom are some of the best ways to make sure your lessons are aligned with students' career interests. Teachers are no longer limited to lectures, textbooks, and chalkboards. The rise of tech tools for teachers has introduced new options like: 

Tools like these make work-based learning more accessible than ever. 

Let's say a group of students in the classroom has shown an interest in architecture. They're good at math and have an artistic flair. Teachers can support their career interests by challenging them to build a city in a digital makerspace.

They'll practice spatial awareness by building rows of buildings wide enough for cars to pass through. They'll also practice communication skills with their teammates who are also working on the project. With tools like Kai XR Create, the possibilities are endless! 

Maybe another student has an interest in history or arts and culture. With a virtual field trip to the Met Museum, students can learn about what it takes to enter the museum conservation world. For example, they'll learn how important it is to deeply understand historical fashion standards to preserve a historic Victorian dress properly. They'll also discover the level of detail and sewing skills required to carry out the preservation. 

Through these examples, students are gaining an understanding of what a career path would look like daily, as well as the skills they'll need to develop to succeed in that path. 

Get Started With Kai XR Today!

If you're an educator interested in leveraging virtual reality experiences for career exploration for middle school, getting started with Kai XR is easy! All you have to do is schedule a demo or subscribe. Then, you can immediately stream 360 virtual experiences from your computer, mobile device, or headset. 

So why wait? 

Click here to get started and see how Kai XR can transform your classroom!

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In memory of my sunshine, Ky(ra) G. Frazier. Love you to the moon and back.