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Tammy Winkenwerder, Program Specialist, Texas Workforce Commission

Abstract:  Texas Workforce Program Specialist explains the benefits of career exploration through Explore STEM!

Keywords:  Vocational Rehabilitation, VR, career exploration, STEM, Pre-employment Transition Services, Pre-ETS, Texas Workforce Commission, TWC, the Explore STEM! Initiative

Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) requires that state Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) programs focus specifically on career exploration as a part of the five pre-employment transition services (Pre-ETS) provided to students with disabilities. These five Pre-ETS areas include work-based learning, counseling on post-secondary education, workplace readiness, self-advocacy, and career exploration.  

To promote career exploration for students with disabilities, the Texas Workforce Commission’s (TWC) VR program provides these services through various individualized services and statewide programs. Some examples of these activities include exploring information about “hot” jobs for the area the student resides or will be willing to move, researching the job market and other job information through online resources, interviewing professionals working in the community, and completing vocational interest inventories.

Knowing that science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) are hot job markets that pay well and provide fulfilling careers, TWC implemented the Explore STEM! initiative this past summer. TWC partnered with colleges, universities, and technical schools to provide STEM camps for students with disabilities around the state. These camps addressed many different STEM concepts and were varied, depending on the institution’s creativeness. To give a few examples:  One college held a camp to introduce students to physics using flying drones and 3D printing. Another university introduced students to rockets and cosmology. The students met rocket engineers. A third college introduced students to biotechnology, health sciences, and manufacturing through various tours, interactive activities and presentations. Overall, there were 10 institutions that held 21 camps in the STEM fields. Many of the students who participated left the camp with more interest in STEM and had new skills and confidence in their abilities to pursue STEM careers.

In addition to learning about STEM, the students worked together to complete various activities and projects and overcame barriers together, as exemplified by two students who attended one of the camps near Houston. This camp gave students the opportunity to design characteristics and build robots to perform tasks of varying difficulty. Mike and Steve (names changed for privacy) are two camp participants who used each other’s strengths to successfully complete a task. Mike is a young man with a form of autism who has difficulties in school due to certain behaviors that he cannot control. However, he owns over 11,000 Legos and is a master at building things but didn’t have much knowledge about robotics and engineering. Steve is a young man who is blind and very knowledgeable about physics and engineering concepts. However, he was unable to see the parts needed to build the project during the camp. Mike assisted Steve by describing the parts to him. Steve then let Mike know how putting together some of those parts would make them function better. In the end, the two students completed their project together despite their barriers because they learned problem-solving skills, how to communicate with each other, and valued working together. They not only experienced the field of robotics but they also experienced team work and inclusion.

If you or someone you know is a student with a disability, are between the ages of 14 and 22, and think you could benefit from Explore STEM!, career exploration services, or pre-employment transition services, please contact your local TWC VR program and speak to a VR counselor. They are there to help students with disabilities explore and achieve their future career goals. If you are unsure of how to start that process, please check out the Directory of Texas Workforce Solutions - Vocational Rehabilitation Services Offices at this website and search for your zip code. VR contact information for your area will be there.