Monday, March 7, 2011

Exposing high school students to new career choices

SSEP 2010 participants, with program staff.
Informed choice is critical when choosing a career. And young women need to know the full range of opportunities that exist, including non-traditional occupations, before making a career decision.

That is the one of the objectives of the Student Summer Employment Program (SSEP), which is presented by Women In Science and Engineering Newfoundland and Labrador (WISE-NL).

SSEP is a summer program for girls in Grade XI, who are interested in exploring careers in science and engineering. The work includes social activities, workplace tours, networking opportunities and firsthand exposure to career options. Approximately 700 women from all over the province have participated in the program, since it was created in 1990.

“The main reason we target girls aged 16 to 17 is to try to catch them before they make any big decisions about their post-secondary education,” said Holly Baker, Program Administrator for the SSEP. “It’s a paid summer internship where the girls actually work in real research labs with scientists. At that age, they are able to contribute and also gain from the experience. It’s a good opportunity for them to explore more of the reality of working in science and engineering, because they are seeing and experiencing it every day.”

Applications are not accepted based strictly on aptitude, Holly said.

“We do ask for their grades when they apply, but that’s more to know they are registered for school and plan to continue their education. Mostly, we base acceptance on whether or not they are interested in science and engineering. Even if they are not doing the best in their high school courses, that does not necessarily dictate how you will do in those courses in the future. We’ve even accepted girls who say, ‘I don’t think it’s for me but I want to give it a try’.”

Holly Baker
Efforts are made to reach and enroll students in rural areas, Holly explained. “A lot of rural schools and communities might not have the same opportunities as ones in St. John’s or Mount Pearl, so we really do reach out as far as we can. A lot of rural schools don’t offer the same variety of science courses as those in urban areas, so we really want to expose them to these other areas of study.”

The program has also been expanded into Labrador, where they were able to deliver the courses on location.

“We’ve always welcomed students from Labrador, who came to St. John’s to work,” Holly said. “But last year, we expanded and were able to find positions with clinics, geology companies, fisheries officers and more, in communities in Labrador, so that students could participate in their own communities.”

Of course, not all students who take the program go on to study science and engineering. Some of the most powerful lessons are what students learn about themselves.

“There are some who come through the program and realize that maybe this is not for them, and that’s fine,” Holly said. “That’s one of the program’s goals – to help a person find their true career path. We try to place students based on what their career interest may be, and sometimes they don’t get their first choice. You can see some who are not too enthused at the start of the program, but then, by midsummer, they’re saying ‘Oh, the coolest thing happened today!’ and they are so into it. It’s a great feeling when they find an interest in something they didn’t even know existed… to see them discover new passions they might have for the rest of their lives.”

Indeed, the SSEP was evaluated in 2008 by the consulting firm Hollett and Sons, who found that the experience was overwhelmingly positive for students.

“Not all of our participants end up in science-related careers,” Holly said. “Approximately 70 percent of graduates end up in science, medicine or engineering. But more to the point, 100 percent said it was a worthwhile experience and would recommend it to others.”

Fueling the Future: Women in Oil and Gas takes place March 8 and 9, 2011 in St. John’s, Newfoundland. It is presented by the Harris Centre, of Memorial University of Newfoundland. Please visit the official conference site, for more information or to register.

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