“What do you want to be when you grow up?” is one of the most common questions we ask our children. Their answers are bound only by their imagination and experiences. But we adults don’t ask that question with any real expectation that children will actually pursue the careers that they share or just because their answers are cute—we ask it because we are trying to start a fairly serious conversation with them. Asking children about their life choices is not the same as asking them about their favorite color. The career dialogue provides adults with the opportunity to let children know that they matter to us and that the choices they make in their future, especially their choice of career, matters to all of us.
So what if we added another question to that conversation to make it more compelling? What if we also asked, “What type of person do you want to be when you grow up?” The answer to that question requires children to think more introspectively and to provide responses that will invariably be much more interesting. By pairing these questions and guiding the conversation thoughtfully, we might be able to influence a child to one day answer, “I don’t know what I want to be yet, but whatever I choose I’ll make sure that my decision is made with an environmentally-sustainable and socially-responsible mindset.” This sentiment is one that we need every child to be able to express if we and this planet are going to thrive, especially in light of the fact that we are experiencing several global crises, namely climate change, a pandemic, and racial injustice. What and who we need our children to be and become are more important than ever! So how do we do that? The answer to this question involves reimagining the purpose of K–12 education and expanding our definition and approach toward career education.
Typically, only high school students have the opportunity to explore career options intentionally, which they do through their career technical education (CTE) pathway courses. These courses prepare students for the workplace by introducing them to key competencies within various industry sectors, and makes rigorous academic content accessible by providing it in a hands-on, real-world context. However, in spite of the fact that research has shown that students who focus on CTE courses have higher median annual earnings than students who do not focus on CTE (U.S. Department of Education, 2019), only 45% of California high school students enroll in at least one CTE course (Bohn et al., 2018). In terms of students’ career awareness and exploration outside of CTE, such as in grades K–8 and non-CTE high school courses, career education lies along the fringe, with few mentions of it within California K–12 content standards, frameworks, or during classroom instruction. This means that if career education plays any role at all in a child’s K–12 education, it likely plays a very small one. To remedy this, the systematic integration of career education with other content areas is critical.
A model for the successful integration of content areas is that of the environmental education movement. Educators could learn from and leverage this movement’s recent accomplishments, and become a significant and practical factor in helping it accomplish its important goals. To begin this journey, we must first shift our perspective about who we are educating. Our children are not only K–12 students—they are our future workforce. Students must learn how to integrate environmentally-sustainable and socially-responsible behaviors and practices into all aspects of their lives, especially in the workplace, where they will spend much of their adult time. As such, we must reimagine our K–12 schools as a training ground for this philosophy and endeavor, and have students continually revisit the topic of career choices and responsible practices throughout their academic experiences.
We already have much experience and practice with re-envisioning our schools as a training ground. To be competitive in the space race of the 1950s and 1960s, the United States poured millions of dollars into education and passed legislation that encouraged its states to refocus instruction toward the STEM content areas. Decades later we still reap the benefits of that educational transformation, as it ultimately led to the creation of millions of jobs and new fields of study. Today, however, we suffer from global crises that are much more serious, impactful, and real than the Sputnik crisis.
Take, for example, the COVID-19 pandemic. This global crisis has affected almost every aspect of our lives, even changing the ways we work and the determination of who works. The pandemic has had a significant effect on unemployment rates in every state, industry, and major demographic group in the United States. Although no direct correlation can be made between COVID-19 and climate change, according to the World Health Organization (2020) we know that “emerging infectious diseases, and almost all recent pandemics, originate in wildlife, and there is evidence that increasing human pressure on the natural environment may drive disease emergence.” Coupling this fact with what we know about climate change, the abundance of evidence unequivocally suggests that humans are not only the cause but also the solution, and those solutions cannot be relegated to a specific industry sector or singular facet of our lives. They must be implemented quickly and universally into our homes, schools, and workplaces.
Thus, a new global race has begun, but this time it’s a race against the climate clock. All of us, especially our current and future workforces, are tasked with strengthening and decreasing the pressures we exert on our natural systems. The time is now to train our future workforce to enact those practices that are required to reverse or prevent global crises, and to ensure that we and all species can coexist on this planet. Industries have already taken on this monumental task, and are far along in re-envisioning how they can succeed financially with a sustainable mindset. Unfortunately, K–12 education lags far behind. As such, the education industry needs courageous leaders who will set a new course for its future, in the same way that courageous industry leaders—like those in the energy, manufacturing, and transportation sectors—are doing. These educational champions must innovate and drive systemic change, which includes changing what we teach our children.
Instruction is guided by the standards and frameworks we create. To change what children learn requires us to change our standards and frameworks or, at the very least, incorporate content and practices that reflect our desired changes. This important work has already begun, with the integration of the Environmental Principles and Concepts (EP&Cs) into the science, history-social science, health, visual and performing arts, and, soon, math and English language arts frameworks. If we want our children to grow up using the specific lenses of environmental and social responsibility during their careers, then we must do the same for career education. By teaching children about the connections between career choices and sustainable practices starting from a young age, we would better ensure that they implement those practices throughout their careers, regardless of the choice that they make.
Leading the way in these efforts is the California science education community. The California Association of Science Educators (CASE) has recently created a new committee to integrate career education with the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), just as they did for environmental education, and will be doing for diversity, equity, and inclusion. Additionally, the California Environmental Literacy Initiative (CAELI) has formed a Green Career Education Innovation Hub, which is focused on supporting the integration of environmental education with career education, and expanding CTE into grades K–8. But the work cannot begin and end there! Career education must be integrated with all content areas so students can explore professions across their K–12 experience, learn about the sustainable and responsible behaviors that we desperately require, and learn how to put those behaviors into practice during their careers.
There is great potential for the integration of career and environmental education with all content areas in the classroom. For example, during art classes, students could emulate artists who focus their artistic themes on the promotion of climate action and who use environmentally-sustainable media. During physical education classes, students could learn about the athletic professionals who implement green practices in college athletic departments and professional sports. Health education classes could support students’ healthy life choices, such as eating sustainably-sourced and plant-based foods, while they learn about professions and innovations in the health science, medical technology, hospitality, tourism, and recreation industries. Students could explore the sustainable practices of ancient and indigenous peoples during their history courses, and could brainstorm ways to implement those practices in the modern workplace. Students could look toward nature for biomimetic solutions to problems in the manufacturing and product development industry during their biology and maker education courses. The possibilities for the integration of career and environmental education with other content areas are endless.
In many ways, the structure of our current education system reflects that of the “before” times: before we all knew about the global impacts of burning fossil fuels; before we all knew that deforestation leads to the proliferation of zoonotic diseases; before we all knew how to think globally and act locally. But now that we know, we have no excuse to refrain from change. Our system of education offers us a captive audience composed of children between the ages of 5 and 18 who will grow up to become members of our workforce. Adults have a duty not only to inform these children about the world in which they live, but to provide them with the knowledge, skills, and tools they need to thrive in our world. Globally, children are rising up, striking, demonstrating, and pleading with adults to change all systems, including the education system, into ones that support a healthy planet for their future. As we adults created the world in which our children live, it is incumbent upon us to respond. If we don’t, we will continue to fail our children. I, for one, did not choose my profession in education to fail our children. And I am certain that you didn’t either.
Bohn, S., Gao, N., & McConville, S. (2018, June). Career technical education in California. Just the FACTS. Public Policy Institute of California.
U.S. Department of Education. (2019, September). Bridging the skills gap: Career and technical education in high school.
World Health Organization. (2020, April 22). Coronavirus disease (COVID-19): Climate change. Newsroom.