OC Pathways Showcase takes students, educators and industry leaders on the ‘ultimate career road trip’

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Tim Buzza’s career path may have started in a small Pennsylvania high school, but it led to high-level positions with McDonnell Douglas, SpaceX and Virgin Galactic. Still, there was a time when he believed his professional life was a random sequence of events and a dash of blind luck.

“I’ve reflected a bit more and realized that luck is really preparation meets opportunity,” said Buzza, vice president of Virgin Galactic, responsible for managing the development and operation of the company’s LauncherOne satellite launch vehicle. “Sometimes when you wake up and feel really lucky, it’s because you actually prepared … and then an opportunity came up and you were able to take advantage of it.”

Preparation — specifically the college and career kind — is precisely the mission of OC Pathways, which on Nov. 30 celebrated its second year of developing career paths in STEM fields and work-based learning opportunities for Orange County students.

Drawing nearly 400 educators, industry leaders and students to the Marconi Automotive Museum in Tustin, the 2016 OC Pathways Showcase featured a question-and-answer session with Buzza and his colleague, Nicole Lewis, along with dozens of displays of student-led projects. The event also included remarks from Orange County Superintendent of Schools Dr. Al Mijares, Saddleback College President Tod Burnett, OCDE Chief Academic Officer Jeff Hittenberger and Brian McAllister, co-creator of the PBS documentary series “Roadtrip Nation.”

In fact, the theme was “The ultimate road trip,” and the metaphor was fitting. As Buzza explained on stage to a pair of student interviewers, the path to a fulfilling career poses twists and turns, and it will almost certainly present unforeseen obstacles.

“Your road trip is not linear,” he said. “There are different segues that you take, and don’t be afraid to try new things, whether it be in high school, in college or in your initial career.”

Lewis, a propulsion engineer with Virgin Galactic, agreed.

“With the drive, also have a backup plan,” she said. “If the road trip dead ends, you can kind of make a little bit of a detour and get back on the path.”

The cavernous Marconi museum is usually packed with a fleet of historic, classic and exotic cars, but on Nov. 30 it was a monument to the STEM-related opportunities available to Orange County students. Fifty display tables lined the venue with high-tech exhibits, showcasing robotics, 3-D printing, video production and even a solar-electric race car produced by Santa Ana’s Century High School. The Capistrano Unified School District promoted its forensic science classes, taught at three of Capo’s high schools.

At one table, students from Esperanza High School in Anaheim shared information about a Medical Science Academy offered through the Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District’s CareerLINK program. Three years of hands-on coursework puts students on track for a variety of medical careers — and readies them to take their Certified Medical Assistant exam.

Esperanza senior Sydney Steinbeck explained that the first year teaches introductory skills like putting on medical gloves and taking blood pressure. The second year delves into body systems, diseases and disorders, and the third year covers medical assisting, as well as clinical and administrative roles.

“I’ve been in it for three years, and I just love talking about it and sharing it with other people,” said Sydney, standing next to a realistic looking arm used for blood pressure simulations and a plastic torso with removable organs.

Nearby, Orange Coast College’s Aviation Science program displayed a drone and offered a working flight simulator for guests to pilot. Stanley Harriman, the program’s coordinator, said OCC has been training students to become professional pilots and flight operations specialists for about 40 years.

“A lot of people around this area don’t know OCC has an aviation program,” he said. “They go to programs out of state or out of the area and say, ‘Hey, if we knew you were here, we would have stayed in town.’”

Harriman said he’s been working to increase exposure, and it seems to be working. Enrollment has taken off, climbing 500 percent in recent years.

Exposure is key for these programs, and it’s just as important for students who may be unaware of their career options. And that’s essentially the idea behind the Roadtrip Nation series.

After Brian McAllister and his friends finished college, they purchased a used RV, covered it with green paint and hit the road to ask others — including judges, reporters and STEM professionals — how they turned their passions into careers.

“We were exposed to all these career paths that we never knew existed,” McAllister told the audience.

Fifteen years later, the iconic green RV is still trundling along, he said, and Roadtrip Nation is now offering a reverse road trip. Along with transporting students to working professionals, the group plans to take 25 to 30 Orange County business leaders to local high schools and colleges to share their stories. In addition, Roadtrip Nation is asking professionals to post stories about their own career trajectories on its website through a feature called “Share Your Road.” You can learn more about these opportunities by visiting the OC Pathways website.

OC Pathways, which is led by OCDE and Saddleback College, was launched through a 2014 state grant. Its mission has been to connect educators and industry leaders to equip students for college and careers in STEM-related sectors. Along with developing coursework that combines academics and career skills, the project has created numerous work-based learning opportunities for students and empowered educators with innovative teaching strategies.

In his remarks, Orange County Superintendent Mijares said nearly 14,000 Orange County high school students were enrolled last year in a career pathway aligned with OC Pathways’ three industry sectors, which are health care/biotechnology, engineering/advanced manufacturing and information technology/digital media. That more than doubles the count from 2014, and 20 percent of the students enrolled in OC Pathways sectors participated in some kind of work-based learning experience, including job-shadowing, mentorships and internships. At the community college level, more than 10,000 students participated in an OC Pathways sector, Mijares said.

Year two is now in the books, but the road trip continues, with thousands more passengers bound for college and career success.