The CAPS Network offers professional-based learning experience to high school kids around the country
When did you decide what you wanted to do for a living? And how did you make that decision? One nonprofit is trying to make the entire education-to-employment process more informed through a national network of real-world learning experiences for high school students.
“We work in a model called professional-based learning,” says Corey Mohn, president and executive director, CAPS Network. “We help connect [high school students] to industry professionals and essentially have them working as consultants to the business and nonprofit communities as a way of them exploring what’s out there for them.”
He continues, “They can try things out and rule things out before they get into postsecondary or into the workforce.”
“We partner with schools and districts across the country and have a few international locations, as well. Last year we had almost 13,000 students that participated in a CAPS program over the course of the school year,” notes Mohn.
The program is running at 97 affiliate location sites in 23 states around the country and most students are 16 to 18 and in their junior and senior years. The three international locations are in Canada, Kuwait, and Kenya.
The original program in Kansas City was in a suburban district – Blue Valley Unified School District – and launched in 2009. The program’s network expanded in 2015 – so much so that it became a nonprofit in 2021 to accommodate its growth and ability to manage well beyond the original district.
Providing Programming to a Wide Range of School Settings
There is great variety among the educational institutions and districts that have implemented the CAPS model, according to Mohn. “We have a school district in rural Nebraska that has a student population, K-12, of 600 students and their district is 750 square miles. It’s like less than one student per square mile on one end. On the other end, we’re working in places like Little Rock, Arkansas. Very diverse population, a lower income population. We work here with Kansas City Public Schools with some charters that are a 100%-free and reduced-lunch population.”
Mohn stresses, “What I’ll tell you is, I am personally not satisfied yet with our level of diversity on the urban underserved. I think there’s more work we can do. I think there are more places where the work would be impactful. It’s not always the easiest work to get started because those systems can be very complicated. One thing we don’t do in our model is try to ram the things that we know into someone’s lap or on their desk without them feeling the energy for it.”
Mohn says, “It starts with educators, the school, and the school district saying that they’re intrigued by this. Their board has tasked them with more robust partnerships with industry. Whatever the case may be. There’s something that’s driving the school to think about something like this.”
“We can coach them once they start the process. If they’re able to start building those partnerships and projects, locally, it’s much more sustainable.”
He points out, “There have been a few cases where it’s been more driven by the business community in an area, in a region, and they go to the school and say, ‘Hey, we want this in our community.’”
“Once the ball gets rolling in a community, there’s momentum that happens. Partner has a great experience. Next thing you know, he’s talking to the Chamber, to other people in the community saying, ‘Hey, you should check this thing out.’”
Earning School Credits and, Sometimes, Paid Opportunities
CAPS Network programming happens primarily during the school year. Mohn says, “It’s happening during the school day and counts towards high school credit. In a lot of cases, college credit, postsecondary credit, as well.”
“There are some situations where the activity with CAPS leads to opportunities that happen after school or in the summer. The most common is a student that engages in a CAPS course, they’re working on client-connected projects for an employer, they have a great experience, they enjoy it. The employer sees a lot of potential in the student and the next thing you know, they’re like, ‘Hey, we know that you’re here in the afternoon or you’re working on our projects in the afternoon during your final periods of the school day. Would you be willing to continue the work for the next couple of hours after school and we’ll pay you?’ Oftentimes that leads to a summer internship that often are paid opportunities.”
A Variety of Pathways
Mohn explains the industry clusters or “strands” that garner most of CAPS’ focus. “These three basically can be seen, used, and implemented in any geography, any part of the country. The first is medicine and health. It’s by far our biggest strand – most CAPS programs have some element of medical and health. The second one is engineering. That can include construction, architecture, there are lots of different elements to engineering. The third one is – and it gets coded by a lot of different names, depending on the locality – business, global business, entrepreneurship, innovation.”
He adds, “The next band of strands tend to not be everywhere, but in enough places that there’s some density. Things like digital media or the creative business world. Social media, curation, filmmaking, creative studio, those that support other businesses. Biosciences, lab sciences, animal health tend to fit in there, as well.”
The Importance of Building a Network
Mohn says the social capital that students gain through CAPS is crucial. “I think it’s really important for educators to be thinking about this as a tangible skillset. And when we are giving students opportunities to be out in the community and engaging with professionals that they have some kind of a scaffolding or a structure to understand what’s happening, why it’s important and powerful so that they can maximize the opportunity that’s been presented to them.”
“One of the reasons I think this work is so important is because – as hard as it is to close equity gaps – I think ensuring that we’re supporting students in the process of understanding and building social capital is what closes the gap.”
‘Food is a part of our life and yet, is highly scientific’
“I’ve always been an ambassador of food science because I, myself, fell into it,” says Jennifer Lindsey, chief marketing and digital officer, Corbion in Kansas City. She explains that Corbion – headquartered in Amsterdam – is “a global food ingredient, bio-based industrial ingredient company.”
Lindsey says, “In fact, almost everybody I know fell into it. Nobody grew up saying, ‘I wanna be a food scientist.’ That’s because we don’t know it exists. If you don’t know it exists, how do you know it’s an option?”
While attending college at the University of Missouri, Lindsey says the dean of the College of Agriculture recommended she check out food science. “My first reaction as a young woman that grew up in St. Louis was, ‘I don’t want to go into home ec.’ She said, ‘Just take the entry-level course and see what you think.’ I did – and I was hooked.”
Fast forward to 2023 and Lindsey says, “I’m what I call a hybrid. I actually started as a scientist, and I was in the lab for the first 12 years of my career and then moved over to the business side. And here I am.”
The Food Science Talent Pipeline
“Food is a part of our life and yet, is highly scientific,” says Lindsey. “Food science is essentially a sub-discipline, a more focused discipline of biochemistry. It’s biochemistry of food and food systems.”
“I found it fascinating, but we have a really hard time at the university level and at the employer-industry level to get enough talent and physical bodies into these degree programs. The demand is far greater than supply.”
Corbion has been an active CAPS partner in Kansas offering a Future of Food curriculum.
It’s described as, “Future of Food is a hands-on class placing students at the intersection of business, science, and food. Special emphasis is placed on sustainability, preparing students to meet impending food challenges faced by a rapidly growing population.”
“In the culminating course experience, students develop a new food product in the CAPS Test Kitchen, write a business plan for its implementation, and pitch it at the CAPS Shark Tank.”
Lindsey explains it simply, “We’ll teach you how to bake bread, but we’re going to tell you the science and the chemistry going on in this natural process of breaking baking bread.”
Regarding the pitches of food products, she says, “Some of the ideas that these kids have come up with are like mind blowing, good ideas. We actually told a kid, ‘Hey, you and your parents need to talk to a lawyer. You have something here.’”
Lindsey notes that food science students are collaborating with CAPS business students. “The business strand works in a team environment. This cross-pollination within CAPS is designed to expose the students one) to food science overall, two) to the food science or to the food industry overall as a wonderful career path that is viable.”
“You make nice money, you have career longevity. I’m a scientist that moved to the business side. Maybe you start in science. That doesn’t mean you have to retire from science.”
She explains that food scientists have four-year degrees, but says research chefs earn “culinology” credentials. “If you’re a food company, you want to have good food, you actually want people to eat it. That’s where the chefs come into play.”
She says the credential is a hybrid, “Some of these programs are two-year degrees – a little bit of food science and a little bit of the culinary arts.”
Her Future is Food Science
Addison Brandau, a CAPS Network alum, is just now embarking on her post-high school chapter – attending Kansas State University.
As a high school student at Blue Valley North, Brandau says, “The reason why I chose CAPS’ Future of Food my senior year was because I needed to get a science credit to graduate. To my knowledge, I was just going to be cooking all day. I was like, ‘Oh for sure. I’ll totally just cook all day and that’s how I’ll get my science credit because who wouldn’t want to do that?’”
Brandau explains, “When I heard about the science and the food option, and then also met the teacher of Future of Foods, it just totally like flipped my world around. I was like, ‘I wanna try that out.’’
“I walked into the first day of class and there were only seven people in there. I was like, ‘This is more my jam.’ I immediately really liked the balance of being in the kitchen, but we were also still learning biology and chemistry that I had prior knowledge of before, but more now applied. And then obviously being told that next week we’re going to be visiting a farm to visit dairy cows or we’re going to be visiting Christopher Elbow chocolates in Kansas City as our meeting with other professionals in the real world – I was very pleased with my entire experience.”
Brandau spent both semesters of her last year of high school participating in the CAPS program which included learning about food insecurity, interning at Corbion, and continued work on her food product project.
She says meeting professionals through the program had an impact on her. “They say networking is incredibly important. But more importantly, I think it was just the act of seeing people that could be who I am in the future. People being successful or being happy in their job.”
Regarding her new life at K-State, she says, “I really do think with food science, I’ll stick with it because of how fast it is. I know that it’s not going to throw me into one job. It’s going to throw me into an industry. I want to be in the industry of food and food science.”
Mohn says, “One of the best parts of my job and I have a lot of best parts of my job – is connecting and seeing what alumni are doing.” He recounts a program graduate addressed teachers at this summer’s CAPS Network conference.
“She said, ‘This is what it means. You guys are just now starting to teach in this model. This is what I would tell my teachers. This is why it’s important and what you’re doing is important. Here’s where I am now because of it.’ The room was just glued to her every word,” recalls Mohn.
“I was trying to hold it all together, you know? The cool thing was two of her former teachers were in the audience. They didn’t know she was going to be there. During her talk, she shouted ’em out and said, ‘Two of my teachers are actually here. I wouldn’t be here without them.’”
Corbion’s Lindsey says about finding that career pathway, “I think especially in today’s day and age, it would be very helpful if we demystify [science] because I think it can be intimidating. It doesn’t need to be intimidating.”
“Science is a different language. And if we could quit talking over people’s heads and start to connect the dots into what they know and understand into the language we use, it’s really fascinating.”
Lindsey adds, “I can make a lot of things that don’t taste good, but, chemically, I can tell you what’s going on at the molecular level.”
Food science major Brandau sums up her CAPS experience, “CAPS allowed me to relearn that I really love to learn. At first, I didn’t like science and I told myself, ‘I’m never going into STEM.’ Here I am going into STEM.”
She adds, “It definitely boosted me and jumpstarted me into understanding the professional world and the intricacies that come with understanding industries and how groups of people like corporations, organizations, things like that – how they work together.”
As far as the food product that Brandau created and pitched during her participation with CAPS, WorkingNation told her we wouldn’t reveal what it is. We’re waiting for it to show up on grocery store shelves.