Over the past eight weeks, my team (Meghan Corbett, Anna Krachey, and I) have been conducting research into the gap between education and employment to low-income college students. This Thursday, we will be having a presentation about our findings and the work models that we have developed from our research as well as our takeaways from the project. You can find the presentation here to follow along.
In our research, we spoke with college students, high school students going to college, former college students who are currently working low-income jobs, and school administrators and researchers who have an overview of the education system. With these participants, we sat alongside them and asked questions as they went about their daily routine, allowing us to see a window into their everyday reality. This is what is call a contextual inquiry, and it enables us to gain a deeper level of understanding of students’ decisions about education in relation to their careers.
The story of a particular participant, James, is very illustrative of the struggles of low-income college students. James is a low-income college student who, at the end of his sophomore year, suffered a severe car that changed his life. Not only did he switch his major from electrical engineering to computer science, he gained a new lease on his life and new motivation to succeed.
We constructed work models to guide you through our contextual inquiry with James. Work models are essentially very detailed slices through a particular subsection of the inquiry. The intent is to communicate a full view of what the contextual inquiry was like and to show relationships between the participant and their environment.
Let us set the physical scene of where we are with our Physical Model:
Sitting on a bench outside of class, James and his friend both work on their laptops and comment to one another about code before their class test.
Physically and mentally, James interacted with many things—he touched a contemporary art sculpture and spoke of the fact that he would rather have dry-erase markers rather than expensive art, and showed us his calendar and laptop wherein he organizes his life and does his schoolwork. The objects that he interacted with are shown in the Artifact Model.
While we talked with James, he was walking around and doing things as he spoke to us. Every action of his was catalogued in what is called a Sequence Model—a step-by-step breakdown of what was happening and why.
As we talked with James, he revealed to us a convoluted web of schoolwork, pressure from his parents and program, and his concerns about how the school was going. This was captured in a Flow Model.
As the Flow Model shows, you can see that there are many outside forces influencing James, and that there are a few breakdowns in his college process. While we talked about the breakdowns, we were processing possible design ideas that we could act upon to make the interaction between James and his college easier. We notated this down in the Design Breakdowns and Ideas model.
The most complex model to make was that of the Cultural Model, whose purpose is to illustrate what things mean in a broad cultural sense. For example, In the center of the college there is a tower—but the tower is not simply a brick building, it has the cultural moniker of being a wayfinding element in an otherwise massive campus which is easy to get lost.
We decided to make an extra model in addition to this to illustrate the car crash that was at the center of James’ life-changing decision to change his major. It shows the flow of time in the space of the car crash, and how James acted upon major forces in his life.
These models are significant because by viewing these, we can not only introduce James’ world to others, but we can also discover new and interesting connections that we may not have otherwise noticed when looking at the transcriptions. They provide a unique and detailed view into our research that we wouldn’t otherwise had if we simply recalled the events from memory.
From these models and from the stories that we have collected from our participants and James, we took away a better understanding of what it was like to be a low-income college student and how colleges do not prepare students for the critical thinking that they are expected to do later in life.
James is unique in the sense that he never had to write up a resume to gain jobs—simply from being a computer science major with friends, he has been able to gain work from his connections. Through dealing with the aftermath of his accident, such as relying on his friends and prioritizing work, he was able to learn valuable skills that translate well to his work.
It is troubling to note that these behaviors were never attributed to college instruction. In fact, most of the students and former students that we talked to displayed a lack real world problem-solving skills in regards to employment unless something outside of the education system had happened to them that forced them to learn more critical thinking.
We also noted that students must take a blind leap of faith to trust that colleges will spend their tuition carefully, and that they are already graduating with the weight of debt on their shoulders and a vague promise that they will receive employment, though as we discussed above, colleges are not teaching students the critical thinking that they need to obtain employment.
Where does this leave us? The situation is incongruous—the college education system is still operating on the same value proposition as it has for years, and yet tuition is getting higher and higher to the point where we question the point of higher education if students are primarily focused with jobs.
The truth is that students need and can learn critical thinking and skills for employment within college—we just need a program that helps. College is beneficial in the sense that it allows teenagers to grow into adults, but we also believe that colleges should be more transparent about teaching students life skills and networking.No Comments »