Imagine a seventh grader in a rural middle school looking for ways to combine his love of art with his curiosity about computers. Imagine a young Latina woman from East Texas searching for a fun way to learn more about the clothes that astronauts wear. Imagine an African American adolescent in an urban neighborhood who wants to learn more about amoebas? Each of the questions interests pictured here offers a starting point for engaging in career exploration and development. Yet for most students, the link between their interests and possibilities for future careers remains tenuous or altogether absent.
When we see these glimmers of interest, how can we nurture them? What will draw students to the next interesting idea, hands-on experience, role model, or the next question for their teacher or counselor? Where do students find the information they want? How can we provide engaging and widely available resources that challenge them to see and explore ways to link their interests to a future career? And, importantly, how can they identify and learn about the educational knowledge and skills that are needed to get them there? The FunWorks is designed to meet the needs of young people by providing an engaging, safe, and well designed site to draw them into exploring Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) careers.
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About The FunWorks
Welcome to The FunWorks - a one-of-a-kind digital library of resources and services integrated into a design template that appeals to young people. Funded by the National Science Foundation, FunWorks is part of the growing National Science Digital Library (NSDL) initiative. The NSDL is a digital library of exemplary resource collections and services, organized in support of science education at all levels. It is emerging as a center of innovation in digital libraries as applied to education, and a community center for groups focused on digital-library-enabled science education.
In addition to providing easily accessible on-line career development resources, FunWorks offers interactive services to help diverse populations of middle and early high school students investigate science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) careers. Created for all middle-school aged youth, the FunWorks puts particular emphasis on engaging currently underrepresented populations in STEM education and careers-females, minority populations, students of poverty, and students with disabilities-using an array of strategies that promote experiential learning to both encourage and challenge students. To accomplish this, close to 300 middle school students were closely involved in the design, development, and deployment of this project. Simply put, the FunWorks has been developed both for and by youth!
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This site can be used in a number of ways within both formal and informal learning contexts, in the home, and in community technology centers, among others. The design of the FunWorks is such that students can use it with or without supervision or assistance from adults. However, we recognize the critical role of educators, parents and family members in introducing the FunWorks to young people and incorporating its resources in their work and conversations with youth. With your help, we expect that students will use the collection to explore their own interests, and to access information about STEM careers, including their own career development needs. Students will develop a new curiosity about their world and begin to "see" some connections with their own futures. This early guided exploration will encourage them to consider STEM careers and help them make more informed decisions as they move through the middle to high school transition. And beyond that, by opening doors to exploration of new options with which to play or pursue seriously, young people will not just see STEM as a career, but as a viable part of everyday life.
Research from the Project to-date
Summary of literature review of research on career perceptions of youth
Several key points were repeated in the literature we reviewed. First, middle school career education must be age appropriate; recycled adult or high school programs are not adequate. Toward this end, a program designed for middle school students should allow the students to explore multiple careers and be deliberately structured to widen their concepts of future possibilities. Counselors should expect students to arrive with sex-role stereotypes, especially with respect to STEM and vocational careers, and need to explicitly show students how these stereotypes are limiting. Second, the enduring career development theories and tools used today work best for white, middle class, male adults. The theories and tools are useful when counseling middle school students, girls, people of color, etc. but possible bias in the results must be considered and should be discussed with the person being counseled. Finally, high-profile professions such as doctor and lawyer have a much higher percentage of women than do professions like engineer or computer scientist. The literature seems to attribute this to favorable representations of law and medicine in the media and to the very clear “helping” aspects of the jobs. It appears from our research that current Web sites are some of the better barometers of actual student interest in STEM/careers. For the complete literature review click here
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Summary of extended research on youth-focused web sites
In reviewing web sites we focused on several areas: content, format, and tools. We found, that while some sites contained exceptional content, the presentation of the content was either aimed at educators or contained too much text and complex language for a young audience. Other sites had interesting and engaging design features but lacked rich content. Many web sites that claimed to be for middle school students were in fact geared towards middle school teachers. This was again apparent by the amount of text, level of language, the colors and images, and the presence of traditional lesson plans. Of the sites reviewed, many of the best-designed sites for youth had animated “guides” that lent a personal air to the web site, were brightly colored and took the form of animations or cartoon like drawings. Also, the navigation schemes of the these sites were generally very simple and contained both text and graphics. The guides helped users move through various areas of the site and the simple navigation added to both the overall design and the energizing, exploratory nature of the site.
Summary of data from career surveys/interviews/focus groups
The project surveyed over 300 middle school aged youth to gather data on their career perceptions. Crime Solving, Sports, Music, Medicine, and Teaching, and Law are all categories that interest our target audience. However, in addition to career categories like these, career development sites must have an entry pathway for students who are completely undecided about their future career goals. Students arrive at middle school with established (and often stereotypical) attitudes and expectations about the gender-appropriateness of careers. If a single digital library is to meet the needs of girls and boys at this age level, it must present STEM careers in multiple ways in order to entice all visitors. Sites should allow students to explore multiple careers and be deliberately structured to widen their concepts of future possibilities, to take them beyond lawyer, doctor, nurse, and teacher. Career education must help students see themselves in STEM careers - this is particularly important for reaching girls and students of color. Today’s students are very willing to consider careers related in some way to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics and would benefit from career information that helps them see a possible future as smart, hard-working STEM professionals who enjoy their work, are economically self-sufficient, and can help make a difference in the world. For the complete career survey report, click here
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Summary of data from web site preferences surveys/interviews/focus groups
The project surveyed over 300 middle school aged youth to gather data on their web site preferences. Several key themes emerged from this research in terms of the site design preferences of middle school students. Youth connected well with interactive sites that balanced visual and textual elements in a way that accounted for their varying learning styles and preferences. When presenting educational content online, it seemed important to youth that the content be connected to relevant points of interest in their lives. This seems to imply a need to provide various contexts in which the information might be of use to young people. Other themes included consistent and clear navigation elements, moderate to high levels of interactivity, low site load times, the use of games and entertainment with underlying educational objectives, and age-appropriate uses of graphical images. For the complete web preference report, click here
The Youth Design Team
The project worked closely with eight middle school students at a community technology center in Roxbury, Massachusetts over the course of six months (July-Dec 2004). The design team students were a mix of Hispanic and African American girls and boys who attended different schools across Boston. The team members created individual Web sites, critiqued digital library mock-ups, and brainstormed potential site names. We selected broad interest areas (as the “career categories”) that we heard mentioned repeatedly by youth; namely: Sports, Arts, Computers, Medicine, Law, Exploration.
Based on our research and the design team’s feedback, the collection is now being designed to help youth translate these interests into viable careers and more importantly, to show our target age group (10-14 year olds) how STEM plays a big role in achieving those careers. This is accompanied by the tacit implication that one may start on one career path only to discover another one, not even imaginable at the outset. We are designing the site in a way that will be compelling to these youth – using particular colors, simple diction, short paragraphs and innovative Web technology such as Flash. We are creating examples of career choices that are compelling to youth but not necessarily the stereo-typical choice. For instance, in the case of sports, by presenting career options besides pro-ball player, we ask the children to consider vocations that incorporate things they enjoy or have an interest in but that are not the obvious choice. Using "Cool Facts" we try to illustrate how science or math or technology play a role in sports. In addition, we place a ‘dictionary’ link on each page of the site so that a child who is puzzled by a word can instantly look it up. Existing career content is being researched, identified and incorporated into each job description based on its veracity, suitability to the age group and ease of use.
To see our design team & the many other young people who have worked on this project, click here!
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FunWorks is envisioned as a comprehensive library that over time will serve a wide audience—high school, undergraduate and graduate students (university & community college), and adult learners—and respond to the unique and changing career development needs of these users. The collection will also expand to serve adults and adult educators who influence the career decisions of youth such as guidance counselors, teachers, career and technical school educators, community-based youth workers/educators, media/resource staff (e.g., media specialists and librarians), parents, national STEM organizations, and employers in STEM related industries. If you are interested in partnering with us to help expand this collection, please email us at, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Recommend Resources for Career Development
We are in the process of reviewing and selecting resources for STEM career exploration that are appropriate for middle school aged youth. These include sites with information about specific STEM careers, mentor websites, videos of STEM workplaces, interactive games or activities, classroom materials, curricula, and other digitized resources that will help build an exciting and informative site for middle school youth. If you have resources, or if you would like to recommend sites and resources for possible inclusion in the library, please email us at, email@example.com.
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Sarita Nair, Co-principal Investigator, Project Director
Stella Ogunor, Technology Specialist
Audrey Borus, Research Associate
Bethany Carlson, Research Associate
Do you have questions or comments about this work? We want to hear from you! Please contact the Project Director, Sarita Nair.