Developing K-12 STEM Career Pathways for the Future of Work

This is a reposting of a blog originally published on STEM for All Multiplex website. Posted by Sarah MacGillivray and Joyce Malyn-Smith

What is a career pathway, and how can career pathways prepare youth for the future of work? Simply stated, a career pathway is a learning trajectory that aligns the skills taught in K–12 education with those in post-secondary education. The goal is to ensure that the young people who travel the pathway are well-prepared to enter and succeed in their chosen field. To achieve this goal, there is an explicit focus on supporting students through important transition periods by providing vertically articulated curricula as well as added supports and guidance on relevant courses, programs, or other learning opportunities to build interest and sustain learning. 

Career pathways are found in various learning models, including career and technical education, computer science, career academies, work-based learning, hybrid models and others. Regardless of the specific model, the key to a successful career pathway is to provide a continuum of learning that iteratively builds on prior skill and knowledge. Robust career pathways establish linkages and provide strong, bridge-like supports between high schools, community colleges, universities, and the workplace.

The majority of career pathways are formed around specific skill standards that define what successful workers need to know and be able to do. As we look to the horizon, reports on the future of work—as well as trends in high tech companies—provide us with a glimpse of the competencies today’s students will need to thrive in emerging fields (e.g., Artificial Intelligence, Quantum Information Sciences, Data Analytics/Data Science, Convergence fields). In Building Foundational Skills Needed for Success in Work at the Human Technology Frontier, STELAR explores what will be needed to prepare youth for the future of work, defining strategies that can be used to build students’ skills and dispositions in key areas including interdisciplinary teamwork, design and systems thinking, lifelong learning, and real-world problem solving. The career pathway system provides us with a framework to develop K–12 pathways for these emerging fields, and doing so is key to ensuring that all youth have equitable access to pursuing careers in these fields. Activities along career pathways help youth acquire the foundational skills, knowledge, and dispositions they will need to pursue careers; support them in exploring and engaging with these careers; provide opportunities to formulate and solve complex, real- world problems; and enable students to determine the pathway they would like to pursue.


The NSF ITEST (Innovative Technology Experiences for Students and Teachers) program is perfectly situated to support youth in exploring career pathways for the future of work, with its emphasis on innovative technology and workforce development. Indeed, since its inception in 2003 ITEST has been in the forefront of developing and testing programs to broaden participation in STEM learning and careers—with an explicit focus on helping students develop the skills, knowledge and dispositions needed for future work. ITEST projects have accomplished this in myriad ways, from focusing on foundational skills such as computational thinking, design/engineering thinking, data science and problem-based learning, to helping students develop interest and explore new career fields such as those in artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, and computer science. STELAR’s K-8 STEM Career Competencies draw on the ITEST project portfolio to provide a foundation for STEM career pathways focused on future work. Actively involved partners within ITEST projects include educators, employers, parents, students, and industry associations who identify and crosswalk worker knowledge and skills with academic standards, support curriculum and assessment, and provide resources and work-based learning opportunities for students.

As is currently true of the curricula developed by ITEST projects, all career pathway curricula should be current, relevant, problem/project-based, and focused on issues important to students and their communities. To promote career awareness and exploration, pathway programs should also include job shadowing, internships, industry speakers and tours, mentorships, apprenticeships, and work-based and/or service learning. Students successfully completing a strong career pathways system are likely to become highly motivated, lifelong learners; be poised to make better informed education and career choices; and be able to transition smoothly into meaningful and productive careers.


This webinar will explore the importance of career pathways, and the elements used by ITEST projects to create robust, effective pathways into the future STEM workforce. STELAR’s Joyce Malyn-Smith will moderate a discussion with our panelists: Jon Boxerman, WestEd; Jaymee Nanasi Davis, University of Hawaii Maui College; Jacqueline DeLisi, Education Development Center; and Helen Zhang, Boston College. These members of the ITEST community of practice will share their experiences in developing STEM pathways in formal and informal K–12 learning.

We invite you to learn more about K-12 STEM Career Pathways for the Future of Work by viewing the playlist of selected videos in advance of our session. Each features an important ingredient to developing a career pathway: cross-discipline engagement; a focus on real life/real world grounding; place-based, problem-based, and project-based learning; an emphasis on “soft” or emerging skill sets; and mentorships/internships/and career investigations.