All Articles Education Voice of the Educator How a new approach to work-based learning reignited my students’ passions

How a new approach to work-based learning reignited my students’ passions

Insisting students work in teams and having a chance to tackle real-world problems with mentors has benefited work-based learning.

6 min read

EducationVoice of the Educator

Smiling students sitting at table in high school classroom listening to teacher lecture on project for article on work-based learning

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My high-school students are on the cusp of the rest of their lives. I spend most of my time preparing them for whatever comes next, whether it be college, career credentialing or entering the workforce right away. I know that this is the same for thousands of other educators across the country who want to bring work-based learning to their students. 

headshot of Brian Harrison for article on work-based learning

I teach computer science in North Carolina as part of a NAF academy at Hickory Ridge High School that supports students on their paths to becoming future-ready. So many of them dream of becoming programmers or creating the next big future-changing idea. To ensure that their dreams can become reality, it is imperative for there to be greater access to work-based learning and early career preparation opportunities. 

For example, my students struggled with understanding how to work with others. Technology is never a solo project, even if Apple is still synonymous with Steve Jobs. Every great innovation, from the car to the computer, came from teams of people coming together to solve a great challenge and fulfill a great need. Even when my students were willing to work in groups, they often defaulted to partnering up with their friends versus collaborating with others. 

Work-based learning can involve collaboration

You can imagine my excitement when my students and I were offered the chance to participate in a NAF pilot program to guide the development of a new, free web-based platform called KnoPro that offered them the chance to gain professional experience and be able to take part in work-based learning in a fresh way. 

Additionally, this platform would promote collaboration for my students, 118 altogether, to solve real-world problems faced by business leaders. Together, they would receive expert feedback from industry mentors and collectively grow their technical and career skills and boost their resumes. Such opportunities included working with the Patrick J. McGovern Foundation to identify ways in which companies could ethically leverage the potential of AI and with Lenovo to explore how new technology, like virtual reality and augmented reality, could be used to help high-schoolers prepare for their post-graduation futures

I had one request for my students when they started this pilot: They couldn’t just work with their friends; they had to work with other classmates whom they didn’t know as well. This is key to collaboration: Success involves not just working with people who are different from you but also learning how to value everyone’s perspectives and navigate any challenges that may arise. My students would see that these lessons are not only beneficial for professional collaboration but will help to build the essential skills that are part of everyday life. 

Learning to embrace unfamiliar experiences

My students and I were involved in helping to design the program as well as testing. This meant that the innovation actually reflected their passions and interests. Though working in teams was unfamiliar for them at first, my students felt more comfortable as time went on. Every day became a new chance to generate ideas, try out new projects and ultimately take a step closer to changing the world. They not only became more in tune with thinking outside the box but were more open to collaborating, even if they were working with someone they had never worked with before.

My students loved the program’s daily Skillbuilders, activities that shaped their future-ready skills such as critical thinking, collaboration and communication. In a world that’s changing by the minute, being able to work in teams and adapt is key to meeting the moment, no matter what my students decide to do for work. 

While having the chance to win cash and other prizes through the industry-sponsored challenges was motivating for my students, they found immense value in being able to receive feedback from industry mentors and are currently participating in Lenovo’s Future Ready Tech challenge. This input from mentors became one of the benefits of work-based learning my students noticed the most. Mentors come from companies that sponsored specific challenges and offer guidance on the challenges that students undertake, as well as provide feedback on the projects students submit. Then, based on this feedback, my students would edit their projects and resubmit. 

Being able to interact with a global brand has been a game-changer, and my students were eager to hear from their team to make their projects even better. Instead of just a grade or a mark, feedback became an active process they engaged in. 

Providing opportunities to practice soft skills

What inspires me the most, though, isn’t just knowing that my own students enjoyed this new approach to work-based learning, but that I can use it as another tool in my belt for equipping them for their futures through participating in challenges and meeting with mentors. Also, by incorporating SkillBuilders into classes, I continuously prepare my students for college and beyond every day that they are in my classroom. The best part is that other high-school teachers can do the same in their own hometowns. 

Most importantly, the future of work-based learning becomes brighter and helps to lean into a national call to action as more innovations come into play and reach even greater numbers of students — especially in the communities that need it the most.  

Together, we can move the needle for the next generation and ensure that they feel prepared for their next steps after they leave high school. They are the future change-makers after all, and, with more access to opportunities, the possibilities are truly endless! Let’s do all that we can to guarantee that every student is primed for success. 


Brian Harrison teaches Intro to Computer Science at Hickory Ridge High School in Harrisburg, N.C., a NAF academy, and guided his students through a KnoPro pilot program. The students now are participating in the Lenovo Future Ready Tech Challenge.

Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own. 


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