What Do Students Learn in Work-Based Learning?

Work in Progress at RAND

by Cathy Stasz

Work-based learning -- a planned program of work experience linked to school -- is gaining popularity. What do students learn in these programs? Are workplaces effective learning environments for young people? To explore these questions, RAND researchers are studying work-based learning in four different types of programs in Los Angeles, with an emphasis on the student's perspective and experience. Here we present snapshots and initial observations about two of these programs--a school-based enterprise where students sell their own salad dressing and produce from a community garden, and a medical careers internship program.

Work-based learning is supported by the School-to-Work Opportunities Act of 1994. New programs under the school-to-work banner join a variety of existing programs, such as cooperative education, career academies, and school-based enterprises. Despite the increasing popularity of programs that connect school and work, surprisingly little attention has been paid to how the actual experiences of students contribute to, or hinder, their intellectual and occupational development.

Our project explores these questions. At each of the four sites, students completed a survey about their work-based learning experience. We interviewed teachers, mentors, employers, and other adults associated with the programs. The study team is also conducting in-depth observations of students at work. More detailed analyses of the learning environment will be forthcoming.

Food From the Hood

The first site, a school-based enterprise, enrolls 40 "student-owners." Students work after school and receive points for hours worked, tutoring other students, taking the SAT, and participating in business-related seminars and other activities. Upon graduation, points are converted to company shares, and students can apply their earnings to postsecondary education or training. The enterprise began in 1993 as a community garden: students sold produce at local farmers' markets. The student-owners decided to create a product that they could successfully market on a wide scale, and "Food From the 'Hood" salad dressing was born.

As a learning environment, the school-based enterprise appears a bit chaotic--students come and go, the telephone rings, the water sprinkler breaks down, a snake escapes from the adjoining biology classroom. Amid all this activity, student-owners learn the tasks associated with running the business--from weeding and watering the garden, to marketing and business planning, to dealing with suppliers and customers. Learning can happen in many ways, but most of it is hands-on. In the office, for example, a new student learns to use the invoice system through one-on-one instruction by the program coordinator. Other students take a class in accounting from a volunteer mentor, a business professor at a local university. Students teach each other to use the fax machine, and coach each other on how to properly answer the telephone or take messages. They market their products by attending farmers' markets, by handing out samples at local markets, or by making a pitch to supermarket buyers.

While the business creates a focus and motivation for student learning, nearly as much time and effort is spent on academics. The calendar posts both business-related events and SAT test dates. Volunteer mentors work closely with students to help them study for the SAT and to complete college applications. Student conversation is often about school, grades, classes, and college. And nearly all the student-owners go on to college, as compared to fewer than half of the students enrolled in the same high school.

Learning in a Lab

Across town from this entrepreneurial enterprise, students at a medical magnet high school don white lab coats in preparation for their weekly internship assignment. This program emphasizes a college-prep curriculum and exposure to medical careers for its 250 tenth- through twelfth-grade students. Students spend four hours a week at internship sites, which include the emergency room of a local hospital, clinical and research departments at the associated university, a community health clinic, and even a veterinarian's office. Students typically have four different rotations in the tenth grade, and spend a semester or longer at one or two sites as juniors or seniors. They receive course credit for their unpaid internships.

We observed two students working at a research laboratory at UCLA. They interned at the lab in the school year and were hired as lab assistants during the summer under a special program the university sponsors for minority students. Both students travel 1.5 hours each way on public transportation to get to the UCLA campus. They work six hours a day for eight weeks, and receive a stipend of $2,000.

In the lab, these students learn much about the work of practicing scientists. They are taught to run experiments and learn specific skills that act as "building blocks" for doing other tasks. One student, for example, ran an experiment to isolate a specific type of RNA from muscle cells from a rat's leg. The rat was part of an experiment on the effects of training on reversing muscle paralysis. The student could explain the immediate purposes of this experiment, how it related to other research in the lab, and its importance as a scientific discovery. Students learn the same way that others learn in the lab--they are taught a procedure or task by whoever knows how to do that task. The "teacher" can be a researcher, a graduate student, or a lab manager.

In both programs, students are undoubtedly gaining knowledge and skills related to running a business or working in a research laboratory. In both programs students are engaged in active, hands-on activities. Instructors--be they mentors, other students, experts in these fields--demonstrate, coach, and model the necessary skills and behaviors. These characteristics indicate programs that many would deem to be high-quality learning environments, where learning is student-centered and constructivist teaching principles, principles that guide students to construct their own understanding of the subject matter, are supported.

But other aspects of these learning environments are starkly different. The high school students at the lab are brought into an environment where they are the youngest and least experienced, and where status is marked by rank or by skill. While students at the school-based enterprise run the show, these students must find their place in the existing social system. Because they are "only high school students" their behavior is often scrutinized by everyone in the lab. If they do not look busy enough, someone is bound to tell their supervisor. In addition, their lower status means that they are not always able to work efficiently. One student, for example, could not finish her work because someone else was using the computer she needed. Rather than say anything, she waited for her supervisor to negotiate access. In short, the lab experience provides opportunities to learn some "real world" lessons about a working environment that the school-based enterprise cannot.

As the study continues, we will explore the trade-offs, advantages, and disadvantages of work-based learning in different learning environments, and a host of other issues of interest to policymakers and practitioners. Most importantly, we hope to contribute to defining program quality and to better understand how work-based learning provides opportunities for students to acquire knowledge, skills, and abilities that will enhance their future success.

For more information about this study, contact:

Cathy Stasz
1700 Main Street
Santa Monica, CA 90407-2138
Phone: (310) 393-0411 ext. 6326
Fax: (310) 393-4818
E-mail: cathy@rand.org

Cathy Stasz is a senior behavioral scientist and NCRVE site director at RAND. She has conducted several studies on teaching and learning generic skills for the workplace.

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