Career Exploration and Awareness in the Middle Grades: Research Summary

Students and teacher in robotics class


The authors of The Successful Middle School: This We Believe characterize the middle grades as “a finding place” where “the general approach for the entire curriculum at this level is one of exploration” (Bishop & Harrison, 2021, p. 29).

[Young adolescents] need … the chance to conduct science experiments, though they may never choose to work in a lab; be a member of a musical group, though they may never choose to become a professional musician; to write in multiple formats, though they may never choose to publish professionally; to have a part in a play, though never choose to become a paid actor; to play on a team, though never choose to become a career athlete; or to create visual images through drawing and painting, though never choose to become an artist. Curriculum that is exploratory has potential career value [emphasis added] yet also leads to healthy recreational pursuits that enrich and carry over into adulthood. Exploratory curriculum is a fundamental component of a school serving young adolescents. (Bishop & Harrison, 2021, pp. 29–30)

Young adolescents need opportunities to engage in self-discovery and to deepen their understanding of themselves and their world through a variety of curricular, co-curricular, and extracurricular experiences.

Career awareness is an aspect of exploration that has been emphasized in the middle level literature for more than half a century. This research summary focuses on “exploration” and “career awareness” as they have been conceptualized in the middle level literature and offers a summary of relevant research with implications for practice.

Conceptualizing Exploration

Exploration is a fundamental dimension of the middle level curriculum (Virtue, 2010), and from the earliest conceptualizations of the middle school curriculum, exploration has been connected to vocation. Alexander (1964) conceptualized exploration as a “pre-vocational education function” providing “opportunities to identify and/or deepen worthwhile interests” and “develop new aspirations” (p. 17). Such opportunities were declining in the 1960s as junior high schools placed greater emphasis on core academic subjects. The middle school Alexander envisioned would revive the exploratory functions of school offered through independent study and “special interest centers competently supervised and operated on a flexible time basis” (p. 18).

Later, Toepfer (1994) clarified that preparation for a specific career, vocation, or occupation had not been a focus of the middle level literature, but exploration of careers, vocations, or occupations had been and should continue to be a focus. In the 1980s and 1990s, middle level school programs in the United States faced pressures from various fronts to incorporate vocational training into the curriculum. In this context, Toepfer wrote:

Exploratory education remains the most appropriate focus for vocational/career/ occupational learning at the middle level. Appropriately developed, those experiences can assist young adolescents in defining potential vocational/career/occupational interests, become aware of changing employability skill demands, and develop attitudes and understandings about work and employability as a foundation for developing advanced skills in high school. (p. 64)

These exploratory programs, he argued, “cannot be dictated by the high school,” but instead “should be developed in cooperation” with other levels of education (Toepfer, 1994, p. 64).

Career Exploration and Awareness in the Curriculum

The middle level literature is rich with examples and ideas for promoting career awareness, integrating career exploration and readiness across the curriculum, and creating career and technical exploratory courses and cocurricular programs (e.g., Cook, 2015; Curry et al., 2013; Stuart, 2015). Many states have legislation requiring career and technical education programming for middle level schools. As Virtue (2010) observed:

Many states are implementing provisions for career exploration in schools, particularly in the middle grades. In South Carolina, for example, the Education and Economic Development Act of 2005 provides for career education beginning in the elementary grades and requires each student to create an Individual Graduation Plan in which he or she specifies a choice of career cluster and an education strategy for achieving a career goal. Many other states have similar programs involving career clusters and graduation plans. (p. 10)

Other examples at the state level abound, including the Nebraska Standards for Career Readiness (Nebraska Department of Education, 2011), the College and Career Awareness course designed for Grade 7 and 8 students in Utah (Utah State Board of Education, 2017), and the Career Exploration Grant program that is part of the Rhode Island Department of Education’s PrepareRI initiative (Rhode Island Department of Education, n.d.). These are just a few examples; every state has some provision to ensure career exploration is a priority in the middle grades (see Godbey & Gordon, 2019).

At the national level, Advance CTE, comprised of state Career and Technical Education (CTE) directors, and the Association for Career and Technical Education (ACTE), the largest organization focused on career and technical education in the United States, both offer career exploration frameworks specifically for the middle grades (Advance CTE, 2018; Advance CTE & ACTE, 2020). In addition, the National Career Development Association (NCDA) offers a set of guidelines for career development across the lifespan. The framework includes eleven career development goals clustered in three domains: personal social development, educational achievement and lifelong learning, and career management (NCDA, n. d.).

Summary of Research

Career exploration is a well-established component of successful middle level school programs. This research summary synthesizes extant research on career exploration and development in the middle grades in four areas:

  1. influences on career aspiration, choice, and engagement;
  2. career exploration and awareness interventions;
  3. career exploration and awareness outcomes; and
  4. teacher perspectives on career exploration.

Influences on Career Aspiration, Choice, and Engagement

Research related to middle level students’ career exploration and awareness considers many factors that influence career aspiration, choice, and engagement. These factors can generally be grouped into intrapersonal factors (e.g., personality, decidedness, adaptability) and environmental factors (e.g., parent influence, career awareness interventions).

Many studies use intrapersonal factors as dependent variables. Turner and Lapan (2005), for example, examined the impact of participation in a computer-assisted career intervention on young adolescents’ career-related self-efficacy and found that the program increased both self-efficacy and interests in non-traditional careers. Christensen and Knezek (2017) used the construct “STEM interest” as an intrapersonal variable in their study of the impact of an intervention designed to help young adolescents appreciate relationships among energy, economics, and climate change by monitoring home-energy consumption. The authors conducted a pre- and post-assessment of participants’ interest in STEM and their intent to pursue a STEM career and found that students who intended to pursue STEM careers were more interested in STEM areas and that the intervention helped increase the number of female students who expressed an interest in STEM careers.

Parental value systems are a strong environmental predictor of young adolescents’ occupational aspirations (Jodl, 2001; Sickinger, 2013). Environmental factors may include a comprehensive career exploration intervention, like the CareerStart program (Rose & Akos, 2014; Wooley et al., 2013), that embeds career education across the curriculum and has demonstrated a positive impact on academic outcomes. Kashefpakdel and Percy (2017) studied the impact of school-mediated employer engagements in career development activities in the United Kingdom using a longitudinal data set that began when study subjects were born in the 1970s. They used number of career talks a student experienced in school at age 14–15 and age 15–16 as one variable in explaining career choices and outcomes (e.g., wages) in adulthood. The study found a positive, linear relationship between the numbers of career talks experienced in school and the level of earnings.

Some researchers study intrapersonal and environmental factors in concert. For example, Hirschi et al. (2011) studied career aspiration and engagement among Swiss youth engaged in career education interventions during Grade 8. The authors hypothesized that “more social support would lead to more engagement, congruence, and decidedness and more problematic personality characteristics would lead to less engagement, congruence, and decidedness” (p. 174). They used three different statistical models to test their assumptions and found that both intrapersonal and environmental factors had an “influence on adolescent career development outcomes in terms of decidedness and choice congruence largely meditated by the degree of individual engagement a student exhibits in the career preparation process” (p. 180).

DeWitt and Archer (2015) looked beyond intrapersonal and environmental variables. They employed a critical framework that considered structural factors in society that may facilitate or impede participation in science-related careers. Key variables they explored included gender, ethnicity, and cultural capital, which encompassed parents possessing post-secondary qualifications in STEM fields or working in those areas. Similarly, Storlie et al. (2019) employed a critical, intersectional lens to understand the interrelationships among family background, community assets, and systemic and societal factors in the career development of African American and Latino male youth. They found promise in school-family-community partnerships that allow students to transfer knowledge and skills from hobbies and areas of interest to potential career paths, and they recommended an emphasis on equity in access to services.

Career Exploration and Awareness Interventions

Studies of career exploration and awareness interventions offer an eclectic mix of theoretical and conceptual orientations. Many studies of career-related interventions use a social cognitive career theory (SCCT) framework, especially those conducted by researchers in the field of counseling (e.g., Navarro et al., 2007; Sickinger, 2013). Derived from Bandura’s social cognitive theory, SCCT considers how self-efficacy beliefs, outcome expectations, and goals interact with other personal and environmental factors to drive a person’s career interests and choices. Citing Lent et al. (1994), Burack et al. (2019) noted that SCCT may provide a foundation for career exploration and awareness interventions (e.g., summer STEM camps) as such interventions can influence a student’s “sense of self-efficacy, out-come expectations, interests, and goals that inform the career choices that young people make” (p. 87). The expectancy-value theory of motivation (Wigfield & Eccles, 2000) also supports career exploration and awareness interventions as studies suggest such programs enhance students’ sense of competency and efficacy.

Effective career exploration and awareness interventions have various structures and formats. Some research focuses on interventions embedded in the school curriculum, like the Going Green! Middle Schoolers Out to Save the World project implemented in science classes (Christensen & Knezek, 2017), the PLAN curriculum implemented in language arts classes (Lapan et al., 2016), or the CareerStart intervention that provides support for teachers in language arts, math, science, and social studies so they can infuse career awareness and relevance in their instruction (Rose et al., 2012; Woolley et al., 2013). Schaefer and Lourdes (2012) conducted a qualitative study of a multiyear Career Institute program embedded in a middle grades advisory program. This structure allowed students to connect aspects of their personal and social development to their academic and career development. Other studies have examined interventions implemented after school (e.g., Burack et al., 2019; Hsu et al., 2022) or in the summer (Outlay et al., 2017; Stapleton et al., 2019).

Several of the case studies featured in the AMLE/ASA career exploration playbook highlight the place-based nature of many successful career exploration interventions (Vander Ark et al., 2020). Place-based education is “the process of using the local community and environment as a starting point to teach concepts in language arts, mathematics, social studies, science, and other subjects across the curriculum” (Sobel, 2004, p. 7). Creators of place-based programs may “align the programs … with local economic needs” (p. 11) and collaborate with community partners who help with guest speakers, field trips, and projects. Place-based interventions may address pressing global issues like climate change (Christensen & Knezek, 2017; Gold et al., 2015) or real-world design challenges (Holser & Becker, 2011), or they may focus very narrowly on the school community itself (da Silva & Alvarado, 2011). Some studies of place-based interventions relate to a workforce sector with critical needs, like health care in rural north Hawaii (Kakalia et al., 2019) or IT in Appalachia (Meszaros, 2015). Gibbons et al. (2019) employed a cultural ecological framework to illustrate how to use a cultural group’s unique strengths and values to create more intentional career education services in Appalachia. Research by Woodroffe et al. (2019) in Australia emphasized the importance of valuing the assets in rural communities and to shift from a dependency model to a true, cross-sector partnership approach for place-based initiatives.

Career Exploration Outcomes

Research focused on middle grades science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) interventions provides insight into the impact such interventions can have on young adolescents’ career interests and choices. Burack et al. (2019) conducted a multi-year longitudinal study of three national after-school robotics programs that aim to increase participants’ long-term interest in STEM-related fields. The authors surveyed 450 program completers who later had gone to college, considering such indicators as interest in STEM-related majors, taking STEM courses, and participating in STEM-related activities. They found that participants reported higher interest in STEM-related majors in their first year in college than comparison students and were more likely to think of themselves as “STEM people.” They also found evidence addressing gender gaps in STEM. While male students who had participated in the robotics program were 2.3 times more likely to take an engineering course in their first year of college than comparison students, female students were 3.4 times more likely.

Like Burack et al., Christensen and Knezek (2017) found promising effects of middle grades interventions on gender gaps in STEM. The researchers studied the Going Green! Middle Schoolers Out to Save the World project in which participants monitored passive, stand-by power use in their own homes and learned about ways to reduce their families’ utility bills and lower greenhouse gas emissions through conservation efforts. While male students showed greater interest in STEM than female students at the start of the intervention, the female students appeared to “catch up” over the course of the project. This was evident “regarding assessed STEM interest as well as stated intent to pursue a career in STEM” (p. 9).

Rose and Akos (2014) and Orthner et al. (2013) examined the outcomes of a career relevant instruction (CRI) intervention (i.e., career academy) in the middle grades. Rose and Akos were primarily concerned with changes in the construct “school valuing,” a dimension of emotional engagement. They used instrumental variable estimation (IVE) and randomized assignment to test the effects of CRI on school valuing and found it promoted higher student valuing of school, regardless of SES. Similarly, Orthner et al. found students who reported greater career-relevant instruction also demonstrated significantly higher levels of school engagement and valuing.

A robust body of international scholarship supports the efficacy of career exploration programs in the middle grades (e.g., Huber et al., 2014; Kashefpakdel & Percy, 2017; Musthafa & Shareef, 2018; Percy, 2010). Studies show that programs may help to enhance career awareness and the development of non-cognitive skills related to success in the workplace, and longitudinal studies in the UK suggest the effects may be long in duration (Kashefpakdel & Percy, 2017; Percy, 2010).

Teacher Perspectives on Career Exploration 

Recent studies have examined teacher perspectives on the integration or infusion of career exploration in the middle grades curriculum and teacher perceptions of their professional development needs. Akos et al. (2011) assessed core teacher perspectives of career education in the middle grades using the CareerStart Teacher Perspectives survey. The researchers explored teachers’ feelings about career education and factors that may influence or relate to their perceptions. The sample included 291 teachers of language arts, mathematics, science, and social studies in Grades 6 and 7. Teachers in the sample strongly agreed that core content in the middle grades should prepare students for future jobs and careers. They also agreed “that integrating information about work and careers into the core curriculum is both appropriate and important in middle school classes” (p. 6). The researchers called for further research into “moderators in research or mechanisms that may impact the implementation of career education by teachers” (p. 7).

While teachers in core subject areas may be receptive to integrating or infusing career exploration across the curriculum, teachers in career and technical education (CTE) and often bear most of the responsibility for career exploration through courses in such areas as agriscience, business and marketing, computing, family and consumer science, or health science (see, e.g., Boulden et al., 2018 regarding computer science). Recent research highlights the perspectives of middle grades teachers in the areas of agriscience and computer science.

In the area of agriscience, Estepp et al. (2014) surveyed agricultural education teachers in Florida (N = 385) and received responses from 182 teachers, 31.8% of whom were in the middle grades. Their instrument “asked teachers to indicate their perceived levels of knowledge and perceived levels of relevance for 79 competencies related to teaching, advising a Future Farmers of America (FFA) chapter, conducting Supervised Agriculture Experience programs, as well as personal and professional responsibilities” (p. 26). Estepp et al. found that middle level agriculture education teachers indicated a greater need for development in several technical content areas, which they attributed to changes in the state curriculum frameworks that shifted some more advanced content from high school into the middle grades courses. They also found that middle level teachers desired more professional learning related to conducting parent–teacher conferences. Golden et al. (2014) conducted a professional development needs assessment of Georgia middle grades agricultural education teachers and similarly found the greatest needs were in FFA advisement as well as community engagement.

Boulden et al. (2018) examined teachers’ perspectives in the area of computer science. The study focused on the NSF-funded ENGAGE Project, which employed a research-practice partnership framework to integrate computer science and computational thinking (CT) in three middle level schools. The ENGAGE curriculum supported the development of CT practices through a game-based learning environment and … engagement with computationally rich science problem-solving activities” (p. 3). Teachers identified administrator buy-in and individual teacher motivation and commitment as facilitating factors. Findings also revealed that test-based accountability may constrain efforts to integrate computer science in the classroom. The researchers reported a general tension between the relatively high value teachers placed on CT and the low level of efficacy teachers had regarding their ability to implement CT in the classroom. While teachers believed CT is important, they noted the need for teacher training and overcoming implementation constraints.


Career exploration is an important aspect of middle grades education. Young adolescents should have opportunities to explore different career options, see relevant connections between the curriculum and the workplace, develop personal characteristics related to career readiness (e.g., self-efficacy, goal setting), and engage in career-related projects and tasks. Middle grades teachers should have access to materials, resources, and professional learning to help them support career exploration and awareness across the curriculum. As this research summary demonstrates, a robust body of literature supports the efficacy of career exploration interventions—and the list of studies in this summary is far from exhaustive. Middle grades leaders can use these resources as a basis for designing high quality, research-based programs and interventions to provide young adolescents rich, meaningful opportunities to explore and prepare for their future careers.

Annotated References

  1. Akos, P., Charles, P., Orthner, D., & Cooley, V. (2011). Teacher perspectives on career-relevant curriculum in middle school. Research in Middle Level Education Online, 34(5), 1–9.

The authors assessed core teacher (i.e., language arts, math, science, social studies) perspectives of career education in the middle grades using the CareerStart Teacher Perspectives survey. They used the data to explore teachers’ feelings about career education and factors that may influence or relate to the perceptions. Participants (N = 291) tended to affirm the relevance of career education initiatives in the middle grades, though the authors found some statistically significant differences based on gender, subject area, and socioeconomic factors. Teachers in the sample strongly agreed that middle grades core content is important to prepare students for future jobs and careers, and the also agreed that integrating information about work and careers into the core curriculum is appropriate and important in core courses. The authors discuss implications of these findings for the implementation of career education interventions and for further research into moderating factors that may affect teacher perceptions (i.e., resistance or support for career education).

  1. Lapan, R. T., Marcotte, A. M., Storey, R., Carbone, P., Loehr-Lapan, S., Guerin, D.…Wilson, L. (2016). Infusing career development to strengthen middle school English language arts curricula. The Career Development Quarterly, 64, 126–139. doi:10.1002/cdq.12046

The authors conducted a mixed-methods investigation of the implementation of the eight-week Prepare, Look, Answer, and Network (PLAN) curriculum in Grade 7 English language arts (ELA) classes. The curriculum integrated evidence-based college and career development readiness practices with standards-based literacy curricula. As a culminating component of PLAN, students wrote a multi-paragraph essay about their college and career dreams and goals. The authors conducted qualitative analysis of students’ written narratives and quantitative analysis using academic grades and scores from standardized tests and classroom assessments. A key construct in the study was agency—the ability “to be able to engage in the present and move toward the future in coherent and purposive ways to realize personally valued short- and long-term goals” (p. 127). The authors found career agency was associated with key markers of ELA achievement including standardized test scores and academic grades. Moreover, the authors identified four themes related to career agency in students’ narratives: time perspective, challenges of self‐direction, career development, and social and emotional development. These themes are discussed in detail, along with implications for practice and further research.

  1. Storlie, C. A., Albritton, K., Cureton, J. L., & Byrd, J. A. (2019). African American and Latino male youth: Perceived strengths in career exploration. Journal of Counselor Practice, 10(2), 22–50. DOI: 10.22229/aal1022019

The authors conducted a qualitative content analysis of responses to a questionnaire focused on participants’ perceptions of self-efficacy and environmental support related to careers and career aspirations. Participants were 52 African American and Latino male youth (AALMY) in Grades 6–8 from a district with a low four-year graduation rate and a high level of child poverty. The authors identified a critical need for career development approaches that address the unique needs of AALMY and offered specific recommendations. AALMY need access to career counselors who are prepared to help them explore a wide range of career paths and develop transferable skills and guide them in understanding and navigating the realities of career oppression. Because AALMY are often channeled toward traditional career areas, career counselors should normalize skill areas that initially may seem undesirable, inapplicable, or unattainable. Finally, the authors urge career counselors to foster productive school-community partnerships.

Recommended Resources for Practitioners

  1. Advance CTE, & ACTE. (2020). Broadening the path: Design principles for middle grades CTE. Retrieved from

This report offers a clear framework for the design of effective career and technical education (CTE) programming in the middle grades. The report defines desired outcomes for CTE learning in the middle grades, offers a set of design principles to inform policy and practice, and lists core programmatic elements that should guide the application of the design principles.

  1. Collins, J., & Barnes, A. (2017). Careers in the curriculum. What works? The Careers & Enterprise Company. Retrieved from

This report is based on an extensive body of scholarship in the UK and other countries. The authors offer the following recommendations for evidence-based career integration in the curriculum:

  • a school vision for careers in the curriculum backed up by committed leadership;
  • a well-designed curriculum;
  • a strong focus on the learning process;
  • trained staff capable of delivering
  • careers in the curriculum;
  • engagement of school partners; and
  • ensuring consistency and volume.

In addition, the authors urge researchers to design more rigorous, large-scale quantitative studies and to build evidence based on a solid conceptual foundation.

  1. Hemmy, A., Newton, A., & Simpson, S. (2021). Career exploration in the middle grades: A playbook for educators. AMLE/ASA.

AMLE partnered with American Student Assistance to create a playbook for designing career exploration programs in the middle grades. The playbook features evidenced-based strategies, case studies, and practical advice to guide schools in all aspects of program design and implementation. AMLE hosts a Resource Center to accompany the playbook.

David C. Virtue is the Taft B. Botner Distinguished Professor of Middle Grades Education at Western Carolina University and serves as editor of Research in Middle Level Education Online, the research journal of the Association for Middle Level Education [AMLE], and editor of the AMLE Innovations in Middle Level Education Research book series published by Routledge in partnership with AMLE.


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