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What to do when you don’t know what to do

Beaufort County schools build a career pipeline with a foundation in Pitsco’s Expeditions

Published February 17, 2020

How does a rural community with limited resources connect students to job skills needed in the regional economy? Often, the first step to solving a problem is asking the right questions.

When, five years ago, district officials and community leaders in North Carolina’s Beaufort County formed their Labor Force Development Team to face this challenge, the group began by discerning the needs of local employers. What skills are in short supply with applicants? What do students need to know to be prepared for careers at those companies?

Answers were heavily flavored by the county’s strong manufacturing base. Bisected east to west by the Pamlico River, feeding the Atlantic, North Carolina’s Beaufort County has a legacy of shipbuilding dating back to the Revolutionary War. This manufacturing heritage continues up this day, not only with multiple marine craft companies but also with air filtration, fertilizer, and other industries. About 17 percent of the county’s private workforce is employed in manufacturing, compared to about 10 percent nationally.

Determination of these leaders resulted in the creation of a multifaceted middle school-to-careers pipeline whose centerpiece is an apprenticeship program organized through the local community college. And according to team member and district CTE Coordinator Wendy Petteway, “the Pitsco Expeditions taught at the middle school level are in many ways the foundation we are building the program upon.”

After the team conversed with regional employers, one need emerged above all others, more basic than any technical knowledge or trade skill. Desiring a clear impetus to drive their program forward, Beaufort educators reframed this employer need as a question: how do we teach students to know what to do when they don’t know what to do?

As it has turned out, this was a question the Pitsco Expeditions were uniquely qualified to answer.


The decision to purchase Pitsco’s Expeditions came after a visit to a thriving Expeditions lab in nearby Craven County. But Petteway was already familiar with Pitsco’s education philosophy, having previously worked at a district with Pitsco Modules. “I brought Pitsco ideas here with me. I love Pitsco. I saw the difference it made in the lives of kids and helping them understand, hey, I like to do this. And there are jobs in this.”

Valerie Whitehead, a business teacher at P.S. Jones Middle School, agreed to return to school to get the recertification to teach a design class and take on the Expeditions. At first, she found it difficult to concede so much freedom to her students, letting them work in pairs to solve challenges. But the results spoke for themselves, and now she is a fan of the self-driven learning model. This year Whitehead handed over the Expeditions to another teacher, who also has a background in business: Rebecca Paul.

Paul describes herself as the lead learner in the classroom. Though she has been through all the Expeditions, she is up front with her students that she does not know all the answers and that it is not her place to provide them. The Pitsco Expeditions are about teaching students to solve the types of problems they will encounter in the world of work. One thing both teachers agree on is the educational power of a little frustration.

“I had some seventh graders who really liked Rolling Robots because they liked trying to figure it out,” said Paul. “And for others it frustrates them. And I’m glad it’s frustrating them because it makes them dig. . . . I am not going to tell them everything. I give them a lot of what-if questions.”

According to Whitehead, who still teaches STEM and works closely with Paul, “So many kids don’t understand basic problem-solving. They might get frustrated, but in the end they figure it out and they feel so good.”


The career pipeline put in place by the Labor Force Development Team is only a few years old, and the earliest students to experience the reforms at the middle school level have not yet gone into the workforce. But those students are just now aging into the new apprenticeship opportunities offered by the community college.

Already, exciting developments have been seen at the high school level, as Petteway enthusiastically explains, “At Washington High School, which P.S. Jones feeds into, we’re doing a visual performing arts and industrial design academy. We’ve crossed the bridge between art and industry.” One such project had kids cooperating across disciplines to design a food pantry for a local church. “The art kids designed it. The drafting kids built the plans for it. The carpentry kids used a CNC machine to cut the actual materials out for the pantry and put it together. . . . That’s what our workforce wants. They want kids who can work together, figure out problems.”

This kind of creative problem-solving is exactly what the Expeditions are designed to encourage, and this is exactly why Beaufort County chose the Expeditions as the starting point for the program. This year, the district purchased more Expeditions titles, and there are hopes to expand more in the future.

The educators and officials involved know that this is just the beginning. “We’re getting there,” said Petteway. “It’s not a full circle yet. We’re just into our fifth year, and people are starting to get the idea.” Every piece along the pipeline is important, and a strong foundation supports success along the whole path.

Beaufort County: A Work Ready Community

Pitsco Expeditions and an apprenticeship program through the local community college are two important tools Beaufort County schools are employing to bolster their school-to-careers pipeline. But the county is using another important tool at the level of the whole community: ACT® Work Ready Community certification.

Communities across the country are choosing to have their work readiness profiled by the ACT organization. The payoff is a plethora of data and tools that can be used to grow their economies and close the regional skills gap. Students preparing to enter the workforce can take the WorkKeys® assessment to acquire a certificate demonstrating their mastery of relevant skills.

District CTE Coordinator Wendy Petteway was one official who helped facilitate the process. “It is spearheaded by our local community college that we work closely with, and we are currently working on our community’s recertification.”

Though the Pitsco Expeditions at the middle school level might seem quite removed from a program that gathers data from regional employers, the two are actually linked. This is because Pitsco Expeditions are the only curricula that have been specifically profiled by the ACT organization and certified to promote the work-readiness skills tested for on the WorkKeys assessment.

No wonder that Pitsco Expeditions are creating a powerful educational foundation that will pay dividends for the Beaufort community.

“I worked with my group and made a really fun ride for a marble, and I made sure it had a soft place to land. We used our imaginations to be engineers.”

– Mercie, first-grade student (about the Exploring Transportation activity)

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