The business classes Nicole Wethli teaches at Fairview Middle School begin with the basics: keyboarding, report formatting and Excel.
From there, the curriculum gets trickier: The Pennsylvania Department of Education requires 12 career-exploration activities – and an individualized career plan for every student – by the end of eighth grade. Eight more are required by the end of 11th grade.
Wethli meets those requirements by bringing in guest speakers, including faculty members from the Black School of Business at Penn State Behrend.
“When students first think about going into business, they often think, ‘I’m going to have to sit behind a desk all day,’” Wethli said. “Not all careers in business are like that, of course, so it’s important for students to hear different perspectives, with real-life examples of how businesses operate. That encourages them to explore the many options that are available to them.”
Last year brought a new challenge: COVID restrictions, which forced many schools, including Fairview’s, into a Zoom-based learning environment. Guest speakers no longer were an option.
The state requirements for career exploration were still in effect, however. To help meet that need, and to create a central platform for business-themed lesson plans, the Black School of Business and a team from Behrend’s Center for Teaching and eLearning Initiatives developed a new outreach website with video and podcast content and classroom activities themed to different business topics, from accounting and economics to finance, management and marketing.
The site, https://sites.psu.edu/psbehrendbusinesstopics/, is a free resource for teachers. It provides a library of K-12 video content and classroom-based activities.
“We want this to be a resource for the local community,” said Mary Beth Pinto, professor of marketing and chair of the Black School’s outreach committee. She led the development of the website.
“A lot of teachers are struggling right now,” Pinto said. “They can’t bring in guest speakers. They aren’t face-to-face with their students, so they’ve lost some of the nuance and interaction that helps bring material to life. This gives them another option.”
The website features video presentations about financial literacy, student loans, social media marketing and the costs of using credit cards. There also is a library of video podcasts, or “vodcasts,” which explore the value of networking, internships and leadership traits, among other topics.
The videos feature Behrend faculty experts, as well as current students and alumni, including Jeff Blackman, a senior vice president at the Bravo, E! and Syfy networks.
In addition to video resources, teachers can download business-themed classroom-based activities – an ad-writing challenge for multicultural markets, for example, or a supply-chain simulation of Christmas-eve deliveries from the North Pole. They also can request customized presentations, including panel discussions with students in the Black School’s Business Ambassadors program.
Pinto is adding a section called “Business Basics,” with general information about careers and the different ways companies are structured. The website will continue to evolve, she said.
The Black School has made the website available to K-12 school districts across Erie County, including the Erie Catholic School System. It’s also being shared through Career Street, a career exploration network that is part of the Erie Together initiative.
The video resources will be useful even after the pandemic has ended, said Jennifer Nygaard Pontzer, the executive director of Career Street.
“Teachers really want to make these connections,” she said. “They want to provide opportunities for students to have true career-exploration experiences, but they don’t always know where to go. They have some parents they can bring in, maybe, or some go-to contacts in the community, and they are used to the Career Street program to access these experiences. We are happy to provide a connection to Penn State Behrend’s outreach website to reach more educators.
“Things will be easier after the pandemic, when we can engage face-to-face again,” she said, “but for those who don’t travel, or who don’t have the financial means, the need for these resources will still exist.”
Wethli already is using the website, cueing videos in her classes at Fairview Middle School. She has found one advantage in the virtual format: It’s easier to pause a recording and explore an element of the discussion without having to interrupt a presenter who is there in-person.
“We can break it up,” she said. “We pause the video, and we talk about it. That gives students a little more time to digest the material. If they want to dig a little deeper, they can do that, too, at home, at their own pace.”