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Youthentity column: Experiential learning is career readiness

Education is headed in the right direction — but is it evolving quickly enough?

Kirsten McDaniel

When I look back on my most significant learning moments — meaning, the times when I felt I had learned a skill or gained a truly impactful and resonant piece of information — very few of those moments have occurred in a classroom setting.

In grade school, classes were held in nearly the same format: classroom-based lectures accompanied by textbook content, followed by a test on the material. When considering the knowledge and skills which have been the most transferrable over my lifetime, they were most often gained in a hands-on setting.

In high school, an admin job at a local art gallery taught me to navigate a business database while building the “soft skills” of interfacing with high-end customers; my summer lifeguarding job included money-handling responsibilities which not only taught me about balance sheets, but also the importance of trust and reliability in the workplace.



These hands-on and formative experiences are what education experts call Experiential Learning — defined as an active process which engages the learner, not a passive process that happens to the learner. As demonstrated in the examples above, experiential learning is often career-oriented because these projects are based in real-world activities.

Youthentity’s youth programs were founded on the principles of experiential learning, and today all programs continue to be grounded in hands-on work: Career Academy replicates workplace environments and expectations, while our financial literacy workshops require students to problem-solve while applying financial concepts to real-world scenarios.



In 15 years of offering these programs, we’ve observed that through hyper-engaged activities, students begin to discover and develop their skills, aptitudes, and passions. This self-discovery allows them to place a point (or several points) on future goals, envisioning a defined path to education, jobs, and careers. It also helps them to achieve workplace success at a faster rate as they learn to work collaboratively, lead projects, adapt to change, and capitalize on the strengths of each team member.

Recently, the Garfield 16 and Re-2 school districts announced interest in a joint career technology education center to be located in Rifle and shared between school districts in and outside of Garfield County — proof that education and teaching methods are moving in the right direction. It’s heartening to see the prioritization of real-world skills-building in our schools.

Through these career-oriented programs, students are given the opportunity to explore the jobs and careers which are so often ignored — particularly in the trades. Centers such as the proposed Rifle facility not only benefit our students but our economy, particularly when considering the lack of skilled trades people needed for the area’s booming construction and building industry.

More and more, school systems aspire to incorporate experiential learning in classrooms, but understandably this adaptation comes at a slow pace — almost certainly slower than the actual need. In light of the proposed career tech space, and the over 4,000 students served by Youthentity programs, I’m optimistic that hands-on learning will become the norm, and that apprenticeship-style education and career exploration will be available to an increasing number of students over time.

We must continue this upward trajectory of incorporating invaluable hands-on learning experiences that provide skills and knowledge to serve students throughout their adult lives.

Kirsten McDaniel is the Executive Director of Youthentity, a Carbondale-based nonprofit which delivers financial literacy and career readiness programs to over 4,000 youth throughout the Western Slope.


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