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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

You can do anything (but some things better than others)

You can do anything, children are told. Dream big! But many young people don't know what careers exist in the real world or what they could be doing in elementary, middle and high school to turn their dreams into reality.

I recall the 11th grader who was failing math but wanted to major in engineering. (With a mentor's help, he ended up at a community college on a path to qualifying as a firefighter.)

Then there was the girl who was barely passing the easiest classes her high school offered, but wrote that planned to be a "peedatrisin" because she liked children.

Kid, know thyself -- and then pick a career path, writes Fordham's Michael Petrilli.

New aptitude assessments aim to tell young people what careers might match their strengths, writes Petrilli.

YouScience offers "brain games" to help middle and high school students identify their talents. Petrilli and his 14-year-old son gave it a try.

In one that supposedly tested my spatial visualization prowess, I was given a series of pictures of folded papers with holes punched into corners or other locations and asked where those holes would appear if the paper were unfolded. In a test of my idea-generation abilities, I was presented with a scenario out of science fiction (think alien landing) and asked to come up with as many ideas as possible for what it would mean for our society.
Another test measured my “visual comparison speed,” or whether I could spot discrepancies in pairs of digits, while others assessed my inductive reasoning abilities and sequential and numerical reasoning.

Young people get a "strengths profile" and a list of matching careers. Many are surprised to learn they have aptitudes linked to technology careers.

"The results have given my 14-year-old son some new possibilities to consider for himself," writes Petrilli.

When I was a teenager, everyone I knew who took an aptitude survey was told they should be a forester. Apparently, that's what came up if you liked trees.

YouScience hopes students will be motivated to work to fulfill their potential, if they know they have potential, said Lesley Vosenkemper, the company’s vice president of strategic initiatives.

Aptitude isn't enough, writes Petrilli. Students need to learn foundational skills in elementary and middle school. "A student might be told, for example, that they have the aptitude to make a great computer engineer. What they won’t be told is that a failure to master math facts in elementary school, or a weak foundation in algebra, or inability to pass calculus amount to high barriers that will be difficult to overcome."

I'd like to see students start thinking about possible careers -- real ones -- in elementary school, play some "brain games" to identify their talents and get serious about their goals before they start high school. Do you know what it takes to become an engineer or a peedatrisin or a firefighter or a forester? Are you willing to work for the future you want?

Actually, my best friend in elementary school -- co-editor-in-chief of The Wednesday Report -- became a professor of natural resources specializing in trees. But she never took an aptitude test.

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