July 6, 2023

Unlocking Career Paths: The Power of Work-Based Learning for Students

By Transcend
Brooklyn STEAM Center

People often ask children at an early age “What do you want to be when you grow up?” The answers can vary: teacher, astronaut, doctor. As they get older, they become more specific. By the time they get to high school, they’re asked to make a big decision and choose a career path. 

“For students who have not had the opportunity to participate in a wide variety of career exposure and work-based learning experiences, this can be a very stressful time,” says NAF’s Vice President of Work-Based Learning, Brooke Rice. “By providing students with opportunities to learn about and try on potential careers, we are setting them up to be successful and ready to take their leap into adulthood.”

Work-based learning (WBL)—the topic of one of several collections covered on the Innovative Models Exchange—offers students a chance to explore various careers throughout their education and build lasting skills that will make them employable.


Placement in a workplace

A critical component of WBL is that learning takes place outside of a school and in a workplace. WBL activities may range from career exploration opportunities like job shadowing and work place tours to deeper career experience like apprenticeships. 

At Build UP, students take part in a six-year program starting in 9th grade to earn an associates degree or industry credential. Students in grades 11 and 12 take part in year-round apprenticeships in real estate and construction. They spend half of their time in an academic setting that explicitly ties their learning to their apprenticeships. The other half of the program is spent working.

Young people need to see that they’re capable, and I think authentic work environments give them more opportunities to contribute in this world, and also they more easily experience the positive and negative consequences of their actions in these settings.

Mark Martin, Build UP CEO

Building real-world skills

Through hands-on experience, students are more apt to learn durable skills like professional communication, resume building, delivering presentations, and project planning and management, says CAPS Network President and Executive Director Corey Mohn. By starting from real-world, authentic tasks, students learn their strengths in a tangible way. 

“The current education model was designed for the First Industrial Revolution and now must dramatically reform itself to be able to produce people with the skills required for the 21st century workforce,” Mohn says. “Profession-Based Learning (Pro-BL) complements college preparation by adding a dimension of career focus that supports students finding their passions and strengths and matching them to opportunities in the market.”

Every part of K-12 education needs to redesign its approach and outcomes through the integration of real-world learning to prepare our customers – the students – for that future.

Corey Mohn, CAPS Network President and Executive Director

Most of CAPS Network’s WBL centers around client connection, which involves students working with industry leaders to solve a problem. Students work on projects they’re passionate about and are given industry tools to help them achieve their vision and goal. 


Learners’ interests and voice are fundamental to WBL. Students are asked to explore career paths that matter to them and fuel their passions. 

“Our real-world learning system is designed to provide clarity and opportunities for students to take the next step,” says Dr. Sonn Sam, Director of Partnerships at Big Picture Learning. “It’s not a linear process, and we acknowledge that each student arrives at varying levels of readiness. However, by placing students at the forefront of their learning journey, we aim to help them move closer to their purpose. Ultimately, our goal is to empower students with the skills, knowledge, and passion to pursue their dreams and make a positive impact in their communities.”

At Big Picture Learning, students are encouraged to explore their curiosities. Once they identify what they’re passionate about, learners deepen their understanding through excursions, community service, and other methods. Then, they might choose to seek out an internship or apprenticeship to explore it further. When all is done, they might choose to stay in one place or to explore another passion. 

Student choice is at the heart of it—as with every model that uses WBL. Student interest needs to drive the process.

Authentic assessment of learning

Because most of the work takes place outside of the classroom, traditional tests and quizzes aren’t going to capture the progress students have made. That’s why WBL models assess learners based on how they’re performing in the workforce. This can be done through mentor and employer feedback, goal checks with the student, and presentations delivered at the end of the learning experience. 

NAF Career Academies created its NAFTrack Certification to determine a student’s readiness for the workforce through performance-based assessment. The certification signifies that a student meets NAF’s standards as determined by: participation in a career-connected program of study; completion of multiple work-based learning opportunities; and experience with professional feedback and mentorship from industry partners. 

“Authentic tasks and projects are imperative for work-based learning to be successful, as it helps students rehearse their skills in preparation for a future career,” says Rice. “Students also have the opportunity to learn how to receive constructive feedback from and communicate effectively with others in workplace contexts, a crucial skill for success.”


  • Mentorship: Some models, like Big Picture Learning, have mentorship built into the program. Learners can also engage with mentor-like professionals in the workforce.  
  • Compensation and incentives: Because students are actively engaging in the workforce, some models may choose to compensate or incentivize students. This can come in different forms. P-Tech students not only earn a high school diploma—they also receive two years of no-cost postsecondary education. Build UP gives students who finish the program and secure a job, launch an enterprise, or enroll at a university the deeds to two units they helped renovate. This helps build generational wealth and provides a social and economic safety net for students to overcome systemic barriers.
  • The breadth of professions: The amount of different career pathways that students can explore can also vary. Brooklyn STEAM Center’s Career and Technical Education program lets students experience STEAM careers in set tracks. Often the tracks are broad enough to allow students to interpret the options.
  • Length of courses: Some models employ WBL throughout the entire school year. Others choose to break it up into various courses throughout the year. In NuVu’s Studio Learning, students are exposed to multiple career paths through 4-week programs in which they tackle real-world problems. As part of the experience, learners take part in a trimester or summer internship to concretely connect the studios to the workforce. 

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