High school students explore STEM field with CareerockIt


Molly Ashford

High school students explore a future in the STEM field at the CareerockIt day. Photo courtesy of Molly Ashford.

One minute left on the clock and tensions are high.

A mess of wires sits on one side of the table while a stack of papers takes up the other. After decoding the final piece of the puzzle, frantic chatter fills the room.

A voice yells out, “Cut the red wire!”

The bomb has been defused, and the three teammates take turns high fiving one another and cheering. The bomb squad is made up of three students from Waverly High School, and the bomb sits dormant in a back room at the Nebraska Applied Research Institute (NARI) at UNO’s Scott Technology Center.

Students spent their day learning to pick locks, defuse bombs and catch hackers because of CareerockIt, an initiative of the Greater Omaha Chamber that aims to strengthen Omaha’s workforce by providing career experiences for students.

By connecting students in grades K-12 from 20 local school districts with employers seeking local talent, the program encourages youth to explore non-traditional careers.

The program operates one week per year. During that week, students are provided with interactive experiences from different fields of work, with a specific emphasis on STEM and skilled blue-collar professions.

A hands-on experience with advanced technology compelled 12 high schoolers from Waverly to take the 45-minute drive to NARI. The students participate in Waverly High School’s High Achievement Learners program.

Laurie Earnest-Little advises the small group of gifted students during their weekly meetings. She structures the class by surveying their interests and creating a curriculum based on their passions. After learning that multiple students were interested in technology, she wanted to give them an interactive experience through CareerockIt.

“I love that Careerockit is applying work to the real world,” Earnest-Little said. “It’s fantastic to let kids have the opportunity to apply their skills to real life.”

NARI, a cybersecurity solutions company that focuses on infrastructure protection, set up a “cyber escape room” with four tasks: cryptography, tracking down a hacker, defusing a bomb and using social programming to guess passwords. Students were split into groups and given 10 minutes to complete each activity.

Earnest-Little said that opportunities like CareerockIt are few and far between for kids living in rural areas like Waverly.

“They haven’t had these opportunities,” Earnest-Little said. “But I’ve got some very bright kids who are just eager and want to learn. You can just see these little fires being lit inside of them.”

The program takes place in the wake of what many officials in Nebraska have called a labor crisis. President of the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce and Industry Brian Slone called the lack of skilled workers the “most pressing economic issue in the state” and said that the labor shortage discourages companies from moving to or staying in Omaha.

Jen Hale, NARI’s project coordinator, believes that programs like CareerockIt are integral to encouraging Nebraska youth to enter the workforce.

“We love to host things like this,” Hale said. “And we would love to do more. If we want to tackle the labor shortage, we have to start in kindergarten all the way through high school.”

Junior Justin Beck and his team completed the cryptography exercise with time to spare. Beck said that even though he has always been interested in technology, the experience gave him new insight into potential careers.

“You get to do something that you would actually do in a job, and that’s really cool,” Beck said.