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Securing Atlanta's Future Thought Leadership

The Power of Engagement and Experiential Learning

By Julian Arias, Vice President, JA Discovery Center Experience’

It’s now nearly six weeks into the new school year. Long enough for students to be back in classrooms and settling into their new routines, but not quite long enough to be counting down until summer again. Today’s educators are challenged with connecting with students who have more distractions than all of the generations before them, plus instantaneous access to connections that seem more intriguing than algebra. 

It comes down to engagement; making learning relevant to the realities that our students are facing and motivating them to engage in their own futures. 

This isn’t new insight into one of the issues facing education systems, nor is it revolutionary, but it is becoming more and more important with each passing year. In order for students to get the most out of their educational experiences and for those experiences to positively impact their trajectory, they must be engaging. We have a responsibility to provide students with opportunities that open their eyes to future possibilities, leading to a self-driven desire to be the lead character in their own story.

My role at JA of Georgia focuses on this particular goal: to deliver consistent best-in-class experiences to the more than 80,000 middle school students and educators who visit our JA Discovery Centers across the state every year. We are, at our core, a business-integrated education partner. That means that the work we do is in lockstep with the most pertinent needs and gaps that our students and schools are facing. We don’t provide a supplementary experience, but one that works within the state-regulated curriculum to provide an opportunity that brings lessons out of the textbooks and into students’ hands. 

JA Discovery Centers house our two immersive middle school programs – JA BizTown and JA Finance Parks – which give students the chance to be an adult for the day. In 6th grade, student interact within a simulated economy and take on the challenge of starting and running a business. After in-class curriculum around the circular flow of the economy and what it means to be a citizen, students have a job within one of the many storefronts in JA BizTown, and they learn what it’s like to work that job. Students earn (and spend!) a paycheck, pay taxes, vote for their elected officials for the day, and ultimately work with their peers towards a common goal of paying back their start-up loan.

In 7th or 8th grade, students manage a household budget and learn about personal finance. After in-class lessons on subjects like budgeting and credit scores, students are assigned a random ‘life situation’ with an education level, salary, and family scenario. They visit storefronts representing the major line items in a budget – housing, utilities, food, etc. – and work towards providing for themselves and their families within their assigned means. Throughout the day they apply for car and home loans and discover the impact a credit score has on financial well-being.

The magic of these programs doesn’t come from cutting-edge technology or something students have never seen before; it comes from providing an experience that is authentic and genuine, and one that engages them differently than their day-to-day classroom routine. It opens their eyes to the careers and industries that exist beyond what their parents do, and it gives them a chance to see the implications that their real-life decisions can have on their futures, but with a safety net and learning opportunity built in.

Seeing the ‘ah-ha’ moments that come with those real-life decisions is one of my favorite parts of my job. One powerful moment I’ll never forget was having a student in JA Finance Park who was reserved, but particularly interested in the budgeting and home loan process. At the end of the simulation, the student asked their volunteer if he could have a copy of the materials to take home; his family had just moved to the U.S., and they hoped to one day own a home but were unfamiliar with the process. That student wasn’t just going through the motions of an activity, he was soaking in all the information he could so that he could empower his family to achieve their dreams. That’s the power of experiential learning in an authentic environment that engages students in their education.

When I think about our growth throughout Georgia and reaching our goal of 90 percent of middle school students having access to this programming, I think about the way it will shape this next generation of leaders and their families. These students who have access to the entire world at their fingertips and who are getting used to TikTok-sized versions of information – they will be the ones coming up with the next life-changing technology and helping to shape the future of our communities. It’s an obligation and a privilege to provide them a foundation that effectively prepares them for life after school, regardless of what path that life takes. Engaging them in their education today has the potential to ignite an entirely new tomorrow.


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