A lightbulb moment of true innovation can happen when you least expect it. It often begins as a way to adapt to a changing environment, but the end result, ultimately, provides a new and much-improved way of doing things.
For the Iowa Intermediary Network, their lightbulb moment grew out of the need to make changes during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The Iowa Intermediary Network connects industry professionals with classrooms across the state,” said Kristy Volesky, consultant at the Iowa Department of Education. “With the pandemic, planned in-person events were being cancelled, so we knew the method for connecting industry partners with schools and students needed to shift.”
The Iowa Intermediary Network is a system of 15 regions centered around Iowa’s community colleges as well as local business partners and industry councils. The network’s coordinators connect school districts, students and educators to businesses through work-based learning programs, career awareness, career exploration and workplace learning activities. Participants have the opportunity to gain more information on internships, job shadows, career tours, hands-on career events and additional regional work-based learning experiences. Through these connections, students are better prepared to make informed decisions about their education and career futures.
Knowing the potential impact that could be lost during the pandemic due to cancelled events, the Iowa Intermediary Network looked to move to an online platform. Their virtual learning meetings, branded as Live Events, are no-cost opportunities for students and educators to learn more about potential career fields. During a 30-minute Live Events session, industry experts share work experiences that are directly tied to the event standards while providing insight into their current careers. The intermediary who hosts the event is key to ensuring the topics related to the standards are covered while also facilitating questions and comments between the classrooms and the business professionals.
“The Iowa Intermediary Network has made a great transition to virtual work-based learning opportunities during the pandemic to provide equitable access for students and educators across the state,” said Ann Schlapia, Workplace Learning Network coordinator at Southwestern Community College and the Iowa Intermediary Network Chair. “The Live Events align with CTE (Career and Technical Education) standards and have provided a successful connection with Iowa professionals to share their expertise and excitement.”
Topics for the Live Events follow the six CTE service areas: agriculture, food and natural resources; applied science, technology, engineering and manufacturing; business, finance, marketing and management; family and consumer sciences; health science and information solutions.
The transition to the virtual Live Events has not only helped reach schools across the state during the pandemic, but it has also improved the way the Iowa Intermediary Network and its coordinators can conduct program services overall.
“One of the biggest hurdles we face as a state is equal accessibility to valuable experiential and work-based learning opportunities for students,” said Jessi McQuerrey, director of programs at the Iowa Association of Business and Industry (ABI) Foundation. “The silver lining of this online shift is that it allows us to distribute these experiences and this knowledge to an even larger audience, particularly those who might not otherwise have this opportunity due to location, travel barriers and so forth.”
By moving learning sessions online, students and educators can more easily connect with businesses that may not be in their local area and thus, can obtain a more uniform experience between the 15 regions of the Iowa Intermediary Network. Live Events can also be downloaded and viewed at one’s convenience, which has been helpful in reaching more students. To date, 321 teachers have signed up their classes for Live Events sessions, and 276 have requested downloads after the event. Nearly 8,200 students have been impacted by Live Events sessions, and all 15 regions have had attendees.
“We have transformed what could have been an extra challenging year and redirected our programming to create more statewide collaboration between our intermediary programs,” said Erin Swancutt, work-based learning program coordinator at Hawkeye Community College. “This has allowed us to expand our relationships with business and industry across the state.”
With these increased connections, businesses also benefit. The Iowa Intermediary Network and the Live Events allow industry leaders to engage students and educators in an entertaining format and get them excited about their field of interest.
“The Iowa Intermediary Network has been great, and the virtual format has worked to reach a lot of viewers at once,” said Brandon Patterson, workforce development at the Home Builders Association of Greater Des Moines and Iowa Skilled Trades. “Students have reached out directly to get more information on how to get into skilled trades, such as electrical, HVAC, carpentry, heavy operators and linemen work. We’ve helped them look into work-based learning opportunities like internships, registered apprenticeships and summer jobs as well as guide them on what additional education they may need after high school.”
In fact, reaching students through this venue not only potentially helps shape their career paths, but it also helps strengthen the future of Iowa’s workforce and economic status.
“These events really provide that introductory exposure to future careers, and the goal is really to share a wide swath of careers and job opportunities with students so they can more efficiently find their passion,” said Joe Murphy, executive director of the Iowa Business Council. “We hope that as students participate in these introductory events, they will dig deeper in the career fields that may interest them in the future. Providing this link is literally spurring our economic growth potential into the future.”
The success of the Live Events may be moving outside of Iowa, too. Other states are looking into the possibility of replicating Iowa’s winning formula to reach their classrooms and connect participants to business industry leaders.
“What the Iowa Intermediary Network has done has made the education and business connection easily accessible during the pandemic – and for the future as well,” said Holly Atha, president and CEO of MBA Research and Curriculum Center, a partner of the Iowa Intermediary Network. “I applaud their efforts and innovation in tackling a problem, finding a solution and being willing to share that solution across the country.”
Although the change to virtual may have initially been an emergency response to the pandemic, the results will be long-lasting for the Iowa Intermediary Network.
“It was about providing the easy button for educators by packaging a virtual event with top industry professionals on a topic related to specific CTE standards,” Volesky said. “This innovative project came together through key collaborators and has made a significant impact on student learning.”