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On the job: Increasing student participation in immersive work based learning

Midwest | August 11, 2023

In a professional kitchen, a White male chef stands at a worktable covered with food ingredients, bowls, and pans. On one side of him, an Asian male student stirs a liquid in a pan on a cooktop, while a Black female student watches. On the other side of the chef, a LatinX female student stands and takes notes. The three students all wear matching brown aprons

This past May, as the school year drew to a close, staff at Indianapolis Public Schools (IPS) were already busy planning for fall. Working closely with a team from REL Midwest, a group of IPS district and school staff, along with EmployIndy partners, discussed action items to boost student participation in work-based learning. The planning session was the culmination of a months-long collaboration designed to strengthen the district's career pathways and programs of study, particularly in career and technical education (CTE).

Like many districts across the nation, IPS is committed to growing its immersive work-based learning opportunities as a way to help students explore career paths and build skills in real-world settings. But multiple challenges, from transportation issues to a lack of awareness, can make attracting students to these programs difficult.

Work-based learning
includes immersive experiences that students carry out at employer work sites, such as paid and unpaid internships and pre-apprenticeships. Other work-based learning models build students' work skills in the classroom, such as in capstone classes and real or simulated school-based businesses.

To better understand and address such challenges, an IPS team partnered with REL Midwest to carry out three activities: developing and administering surveys, mapping work-based learning processes, and generating action plans. At IPS, the project brought together members of the Postsecondary Readiness team, including the CTE pathway director, work-based learning staff, counseling staff, and career academy staff.

Using surveys to understand work-based learning experiences and perceptions

The first step was to gain deeper insight into IPS students' experiences with and views of immersive work-based learning. With REL Midwest guidance, the IPS team developed online surveys for three groups: (a) high school students enrolled in CTE courses, (b) CTE teachers, and (c) assistant principals and counselors who determine student eligibility and placement in CTE programs of study. The REL Midwest and IPS teams also jointly developed a survey for parents/guardians in English and Spanish, which will be administered in the future.

The surveys asked respondents to indicate their familiarity with the district's work-based learning opportunities, experiences with and interest in work-based learning, perception of the barriers to participating in work-based learning, and possible misconceptions about work-based learning. In addition, respondents were asked to note their preferred communication methods for receiving information about work-based learning to help inform student participation and placement.

Over a period of 10 weeks, IPS staff administered the three surveys1 across four district high schools that have a large CTE career pathway presence.2 The REL Midwest team then analyzed the responses and shared the results with the larger team. Table 1 highlights the key takeaways.

Table 1: Key Takeaways From IPS High School Students and Staff on Work-Based Learning

Key takeaways on work-based learning awareness, participation barriers, and experiences  at IPS:
•	Students have low awareness of the work-based learning opportunities available and 
of how to participate. As a result, students likely need to hear about work-based learning opportunities and processes multiple times from multiple sources to build awareness and take part.
•	Staff are anticipating barriers to student participation in work-based learning. While the top barrier that students identified on the survey was low awareness, many staff noted other barriers that may exist once student awareness has been addressed.
•	Once students learn about work-based learning, most  express a high interest in it, particularly when the position offers pay. Moreover, most students who take part in work-based learning have a positive experience and would recommend it, especially when they can choose their pathway. 

Key takeaways on increasing work-based learning participation at IPS: 
•	Do more to promote and communicate about work-based learning and its benefits. Students identified school-based staff as their main source of information about work-based learning. Thus, it is important that staff be informed so they feel confident discussing work-based learning with students. 
•	Host events and engage work-based learning ambassadors. To promote work-based learning, multiple students and staff suggested hosting career days or other events, inviting student ambassadors to share their experiences, and offering field trips to work sites for students to learn more. 
•	Align work-based learning opportunities to students’ interests. Both students and staff noted the need to align work-based learning offerings, in quality and quantity, to students’ career interests in addition to the high-demand industries in the region.

Jenny Berry, CTE pathway director at IPS, noted that "getting the input from stakeholder groups was valuable through the surveys, particularly from the student perspective. It is great to learn that the students who have participated in immersive experiential learning are finding it beneficial and additive to their program of study."

Using process mapping to visualize and refine work-based learning systems

Building on the surveys, REL Midwest and IPS held two sessions, in February and March, to map the steps in the district's work-based learning processes, such as the steps involved in matching students to employers. This activity enabled the team to better understand how IPS identifies work-based learning opportunities, communicates them to students and families, and helps students take advantage of them.

An Asian man holding a marker stands before a process map made up of rectangles, circles, arrows, and text drawn on a long rectangular piece of white paper on the wall. Behind the man, two women whose faces cannot be seen sit at a long table with laptops in front of them

Current process. The first session generated two maps that depicted the district's current process for immersive work-based learning—one map from the student perspective and one from the employer perspective. The team then used the maps to identify and prioritize five challenges related to work-based learning participation.

Desired process. At the second session, the group mapped the district's desired process for immersive work-based learning, again from both a student and an employer perspective. This second set of process maps included improvements designed to address the challenges prioritized during the first session. To guide the activity, the group agreed on seven principles for effective work-based learning, such as, "We ensure high-quality career exploration, assessment, and matching for our students." The team then considered each stage of the desired student process and employer process to identify what was needed to implement it.

Using action planning to make it happen

In April and May, the IPS and REL Midwest teams came together to turn their hard work into reality. During three virtual sessions, the team drew on the information from the surveys and process maps to create prioritized action plans for the district's work-based learning program.

The team at IPS is now working to implement the plans they developed with REL Midwest. CTE Pathway Director Berry noted, "Working with REL Midwest has truly benefited the team. It allowed us to think through processes at a deeper level and understand the importance of having aligned systems for both students and employers. It has led to the development of structures and protocols that were created and supported by the entire work-based learning CTE team. I know we'll continue to refine and strive toward continuous improvement now that we have intentional and actionable practices in place."

Additional resources

REL Midwest is partnering with state and district educators to strengthen CTE, career pathways, and work-based learning in Indiana and across the Midwest. To learn more, browse the following resources:


1 The REL Midwest and IPS teams also jointly developed a survey for parents/guardians in English and Spanish, which will be administered in the future.

2 The Indianapolis Public Schools team received a total of 712 survey responses from 689 students, 11 teachers, 2 assistant principals, and 10 counselors.


Joni Wackwitz

Joni Wackwitz

Connect with REL Midwest