STEM & Career Prep

Middle School Challenge Encourages Career Exploration

To encourage middle-schoolers to explore future careers, a national nonprofit is running a competition in which student participants tackle big problems. The challenge is being run by American Student Assistance (ASA), which works on helping students understand college and career pathways, in partnership with the Association for Middle Level Education (AMLE).

The "ASA Solve Together: Tomorrow's Leaders Tackling Today's Challenges" invites students to adopt a career for the purpose of creating a solution in one of four broad areas:

  • Addressing climate change;

  • Creating a solution to a public health issue;

  • Building a colony on Mars; or

  • Tackling a "passion" project.

During the inaugural competition, which was introduced in 2020, a team of five seventh-graders known as the "Galactic Girls," from Plouffe Academy in Massachusetts, with the help of guidance counselor John MacDonald, took on roles as scientists, to develop blueprints and models for hydroponic farms to sustain a colony on Mars. According to MacDonald, they performed extensive research, visited the Boston Science Museum and interviewed a former director of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center.

"We knew taking on the role as scientists and botanists would be challenging with Mars' limited water supply, so we had to develop a creative solution through a lot of brainstorming, collaboration, teamwork, as well as insights gained from the interview that we conducted with the NASA scientist," noted MacDonald, in a statement earlier this year, after his school was named the top winner.

"We felt empowered. We felt confident. We felt excited that our knowledge of science could do so much for NASA -- and so much for our future," the team said.

For the latest competition, teachers can enroll whole classes, create teams of up to five students each and choose the challenges for the teams to complete. Or students can self-register as teams, with adult support. During the challenge, the teams work through various phases (discovery, exploration, imagination, creation and reflection), during which they learn more about different careers and develop their collaborative problem-solving skills. Once the team has finished the challenge, they submit a deliverable to showcase their work, such as an infographic, a presentation, podcast or video. Challenges will be judged based on creativity, career skills engagement and knowledge development.

Winning teams get $1,500 for first place, $1,000 for second place and $500 for third place. For teacher-run programs, the school is also eligible to win $10,000, $5,000 or $2,500.

Registration is required, and submissions will be accepted from January 3 through March 4, 2022 via Solvably, a digital learning platform operated by MassiveU. Winners will be announced in April.

"Today's young people do not have equitable access to the information they need to make an informed post-secondary education and career plan," said ASA Vice President of Strategy & Innovation, Alisa Wilke, in a statement. "ASA 'Solve Together' gives learners agency by encouraging them to explore issues they care about, discover their interests and skills, explore education and career pathways, and turn passions into plans. This is also a powerful way to re-engage pandemic era disconnected learners by encouraging them to refocus on the futures and possibilities."

"We know that middle school is an ideal time for students to explore and learn about themselves and the world around them, and that students benefit when curriculum is organized around significant problems and issues in society," added Stephanie Simpson, CEO of AMLE. "This meets both of those aims, offering students the opportunity to tackle real-world problems through the lens of potential future careers. We can't wait to see what our amazingly creative middle grades students come up with this year!"

Learn more on the ASA Solve Together website.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.