Senior Ahmed Nasereddin demonstrates an exercise at Select Medical Physical therapy.

New Field Experience Class Focuses on Soft Skills to Develop the Future Workforce

Valley High School launched the new Collaborative Field Experience class in fall 2018. Its inaugural class of seven students all completed semester-long projects or placements. One student revamped the teen space in the West Des Moines library. Others worked with athletes as trainers and physical therapists. One designed a class website; another designed a river otter habitat.

The class was created to give students a chance to explore potential career paths and learn workplace skills. It was developed using feedback from the West Des Moines Community Schools (WDMCS) Business Advisory Council, made up of parents, community members, and alums. The council’s purpose is to advise the district and Valley’s business department on curriculum and the best ways to prepare students for their future careers.

“There was just a constant message being sent that the workforce wasn’t being developed,” teacher Mark Verbrugge said. “[People] weren’t ready for the workforce when they got there. [The council] wanted to see an emphasis on soft skill development.”

Soft skills are interpersonal skills or traits needed to succeed in the workplace. Also known as essential life skills, people skills, and the emotional quotient, soft skills are constantly evolving with the career landscape and workforce. Some of the most important soft skills in 2019 are creativity, persuasion, and empathy, according to articles on LinkedIn and Forbes. Global online employment solution Monster says soft skills can also be harder to demonstrate and measure than technical-based hard skills.

Senior Elisabeth Kasal creates layouts with interior design software.

Senior Elisabeth Kasal creates layouts with interior design software.

As a former manager at The Principal Financial Group, Verbrugge knew students could not fully develop the skills needed to succeed in a professional workplace without experiencing it themselves. He reached out to local businesses and organizations that fit students’ interests to see if they were interested in working with students. Partners during the first semester of the class included the Blank Park Zoo, Select Medical, and the City of West Des Moines.

During the semester, each student completed a project or internship-like placement, working with a business mentor. Each experience was highly individualized but all included mentor meetings, project time, and exposure to the business environment.

“I really enjoyed how hands-on the experience was,” said junior Mari Wharff, who focused on athletic training. “I was able to work directly with athletes, and it gave me a good feel for what athletic trainers do day to day.”

Wharff worked with mentors from Select Medical two or three days a week, helping to tape and stretch athletes and observing exams at practices and athletic events each week. At the end of the semester, she presented three case studies about common injuries she had observed.

The class environment itself also mimicked a business. Verbrugge did not lecture, instead letting students manage their own timelines. Class time was for meeting with mentors, logging placement time, or working on their business partnership projects.  

“I approach the class the way I did when I was managing at Principal,” Verbrugge said. “I treat them professionally. It’s not your typical classroom.”

Verbrugge also secured an off-campus space where students could work so they could gain as much exposure as possible to real-world working environments. Working with Teaching & Learning Services Director Michelle Lettington, Secondary Curriculum Director Shane Scott, and Project-Based Learning Network Thought Partner & Business Liaison Justin Miller, Verbrugge selected the TigerLily STEM space in West Glen Town Center as the class headquarters.

Senior Aryan Prajapati designs wireframes for the Collaborative Field Experience website during work time at TigerLily STEM.

Senior Aryan Prajapati designs wireframes for the Collaborative Field Experience website during work time at TigerLily STEM.

Senior Aryan Prajapati spent the majority of his time at TigerLily STEM designing wireframes—screen blueprints or visual guides—for a class website. He met with a mentor from the district’s School/Community Relations Department* to develop the site’s organization, then worked on the design independently, updating his mentor and Verbrugge on his progress.  

“I got to control what I did and was given freedom to make the website how I wanted,” Prajapati said. I learned how to work around unexpected problems and how to adjust the project timeline to accommodate the time required to fix the unexpected problems.”

Despite the wide variety of projects and experiences, the development of so-called soft skills like time management and organization seemed to be the through thread of the class for students by the end of the semester. Each student gave a final presentation of their project or experience, including a self-reflection.

“The thing I kept on hearing over and over again was they had to improve their communication skills; they had to get better at that,” Verbrugge said. “The biggest thing—and I’m glad this hit home—was time management.”

Verbrugge also noted that many students impressed him with their resourcefulness as they worked on projects concerning subject matters where he had little to no knowledge, like web design and meteorology—not to mention animal habitat creation.

Junior Andrew Gioffredi arranges a display on river otters at the Blank Park Zoo.

Junior Andrew Gioffredi arranges a display on river otters at the Blank Park Zoo.

Junior Andrew Gioffredi was partnered with the Blank Park Zoo for the semester. He was tasked with designing and creating a financial plan for a new otter exhibit. He also acted as a volunteer ambassador for the otters. At the end of the class, Gioffredi was still interested in his focus areas of zoology and biology, but realized habitat design and zoo work might not be in his future. Instead, he wants to work with organizations like the Iowa Department of Natural Resources or Polk County Conservation.

“My favorite part was learning about the zoo’s efforts to improve global preservation efforts for endangered species,” he said. “I like working with animals and studying them—not so much designing what to hold them in.”

Like Gioffredi, Wharff and Prajapati remain interested in the career fields they experienced, but both want to explore different areas of those fields. Some students, like Wharff, will take the class twice to further define their interests or have multiple experiences. For Verbrugge, figuring out what is not a good fit is just as important for students as learning what they do want to pursue. As the Collaborative Field Experience class begins its second semester, he hopes the opportunity for these hands-on experiences will prepare students for what comes after high school—whether that is college, trade, or career.

*Aryan Prajapati was mentored by article author Alexandra Wade, WDMCS school/community relations specialist.

Thank You to Our Partners

The West Des Moines Community Schools and Valley High School would like to thank the Collaborative Field Experience business and organization partners:

  • Blank Park Zoo
  • ChildServe
  • City of West Des Moines
  • CPA Des Moines
  • Emily Lee Design
  • IMT Insurance
  • Iowa Business Council
  • Ironhorse Wealth Management
  • Select Medical
  • Valley High School Athletics & Activities Office
  • West Des Moines Chamber of Commerce
  • West Des Moines Public Library

We would also like to extend a special thank you to Meredith Smith and TigerLily STEM, which functioned as the Collaborative Field Experience class headquarters and serves many other students in the Des Moines metro area. Smith and her inspiring organization are valued partners of the district, and Smith delivered the keynote speech at the 2018 WDMCS Staff Welcome Back event. Learn more about TigerLily STEM and its mission at