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The Boys & Girls Clubs of America are better known for after-school homework help and volunteerism than for innovative career development.
But ask the kids at some of the boys & girls clubs in states like Indiana, Montana, and Washington, and they might say they’re surrounded by high-tech tools to help them envision their future.
Lana Taylor, executive director of the Indiana Alliance of the Boys & Girls Clubs, said her staff had begun looking at ways to get students — particularly middle school students — back in as the pandemic eased and children returned to in-person programs. Because children love technology and hands-on learning, Taylor thought it only natural to create programs that leverage both.
In February 2022, Indiana Boys & Girls Clubs partnered with immersive technology startup Transfr to introduce students at 10 of its clubs to new career and employment opportunities. The collaboration dovetailed with a new focus on workforce readiness at the Indiana Department of Education. Now, thanks to a state grant, Transfr’s partnership with clubs is expanding to 21 more clubs across Indiana.
“Just having the experience and being exposed to it was really good, even for the little guys. Because what we find is that you have to start early.”
Lana Taylor, executive director of the Indiana Alliance of the Boys & Girls Clubs
Transfr uses virtual reality to develop immersive career and personal training simulations for industries such as manufacturing, carpentry, public safety, hospitality, and automotive. In 2021, the company began working with several Boys & Girls Clubs in Washington State and Montana to tailor this training to K-12 students.
According to Taylor, the program is a great fit for Indiana club students because the simulations introduce them to industries they hadn’t thought of before.
“Just having the experience and being exposed to it was really good, even for the little guys. Because what we find is that you have to start early,” she said. “For middle school, high school — they come there and think, ‘I’ll be out of school in two years. Here’s what I would like to do. It was great fun. I’d love to figure out how to do that.’”
Related: COLUMN: Helping middle school students think about a post-pandemic future
Once students have completed a series of simulations, they are asked to answer questions that gauge their interest in the area. Taylor said this helps her team arrange internships and apprenticeships with local companies.
Brian Hartz, business owner of Transfr’s virtual training facility, said the training is hitting many children where they are.
“Young people are naturally more comfortable with any new technology than people who are more established in their careers,” he said. Also, there is a huge need for a pipeline of future job applicants in many craft industries, he added. This demand is helping fuel a growing movement for career exploration at a younger age.
The national Boys & Girls Club is also sharpening its focus on staff development for young people, Taylor said.
And in Indiana, the state Department of Education announced in 2021 that career exploration and postsecondary education readiness will be a requirement in its schools. The department will also partially evaluate school districts on their career readiness work.
Taylor said many of the clubs’ high school attendees, as well as the college-age AmeriCorps members who serve as staff and volunteers, are looking for non-traditional avenues after graduation. The virtual reality simulations give them a glimpse into jobs that may not require a four-year degree.
It’s not just the older kids that Indiana clubs are hoping for new opportunities. According to Taylor, the middle school age group has now become one of the clubs’ priorities. During the pandemic, she said, club staff were most concerned about supporting the youngest kids and providing opportunities for high schoolers, but there wasn’t much programming for middle-grade kids.
Taylor said clubs across the state are now focusing on these students. A work-based learning program using Transfr’s VR headsets is designed specifically for middle school students. It gives these students the opportunity to learn about trades and careers and to become ‘junior staff’ of the Boys & Girls Club by working 50 hours for the club.
“They are kind of a lost generation right now. We didn’t really have a lot of options for them,” Taylor said. “So we really expanded and tried to make sure we have special programs for them.”
This story about virtual reality and vocational training was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.