When it came to career plans, Mike Marriner, Brian McAllister, and Nathan Gebhard didn’t have a clue. They had crisp, new college diplomas, parents with high hopes – and zero idea what to do with their lives. That’s more common than you might expect.

For them, the solution came in the form of a twenty-year-old motor home that McAllister’s family was preparing to junk. Suppose, one of them speculated, we drive the motor home around the country, and ask people who have already decided what to be when they grow up how they did it?

Implausibly enough, that’s what they did. The friends compiled a list of successful people they’d like to ask – from genome decoder J. Craig Venter to snowboard designer Michael Jager – and set off on a three-month, 17,000-mile journey crisscrossing the country in search of vocational wisdom.

What started in 2001 as vehicular career counseling for the three young graduates blossomed into Roadtrip Nation, a juggernaut that to date consists of a PBS television series now in its sixth season, three books about picking a career, an online community, and a movement that lets other students searching for direction emulate the founders with their own road trips.

Now, with a $900,000 grant from The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the founders plan to bring Roadtrip Nation’s unique brand of career counseling to 100,000 at-risk students in California public schools in the hope that that it may offer a way to lower the state’s daunting high school dropout rate.

“We realized that after college is too late to reach most kids,” says McAllister. “So we started thinking about creating a curriculum that brings Roadtrip Nation into the classroom.”

A Problem with Broad Implications for California

The dropout rate, both in California and nationally, is severe and has implications that reach well beyond the dropouts themselves.

Nationally, 30 percent of high school students drop out. In California, one out of four high school students leaves school without a diploma. Among African American, Hispanic, and low-income students, the rates are even higher – slightly more than 50 percent. In Los Angeles, the dropout rate is more than 60 percent. Put another way, each year 120,000 Californians reach age twenty without a diploma, according to the California Dropout Research Project at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

According to “The Silent Epidemic: Perspectives of High School Dropouts,” a 2006 study funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, dropouts are more likely than graduates to be unemployed, in poor health, living in poverty, on public assistance, and single parents with children who, in turn, also drop out. They also are eight times as likely to be incarcerated as those who graduate.

Moreover, the Gates study concluded, the government would reap $45 billion in additional tax revenues as well as reductions in public health expenses, crime, and welfare payments, if the number of high school dropouts among twenty-year-olds in the United States today – more than 700,000 people – was halved.

But what drew the interest of Roadtrip Nation’s three founders was the report’s finding that more than 80 percent of dropouts surveyed said their likelihood of staying in school would have increased if classes had provided opportunities for real-world learning. The finding was echoed in a 2006 study in which 73 percent of California ninth and tenth graders surveyed said they would do better in school if they were motivated to work harder, and 91 percent said they would have that motivation if schoolwork helped them acquire skills and knowledge they saw to be relevant to future careers.

Encouraged by the finding, last fall Marriner, McAllister, and Gebhard partnered with KQED in San Francisco, the presenting station of the Roadtrip Nation television show, and the California Department of Education to launch a pilot program that reached 2,500 kids deemed to be at risk of dropping out and engaged them in a curriculum based on the Roadtrip Nation approach. A thousand of the kids were in Fresno schools with the balance in various disadvantaged communities around the state.

Taking to the Road in Their Own Home Towns

Instead of touring the nation in an old RV, these students interviewed leaders in their own communities about how they made their career choices and what preparation they needed to be successful. But before the interviews began, students had to complete a range of activities: first examining their own interests and attitudes toward planning their futures; next, deciding whom to contact and what to ask; and, finally, learning to operate video equipment so they could record and share the experience with others.

To the extent that the students’ perceptions matter, the initial signs were encouraging.

Surveys of students participating in what has been named the Roadtrip Nation Experience found that 92 percent said they have a better sense of what their interests are after completing the curriculum; 95 percent felt they were more exposed to opportunities and options for the future; and 66 percent said they are more hopeful about their futures as a result of this program, among other positive findings.

The pilot also encouraged California State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell, who said, “The Roadtrip Nation Experience curriculum is designed to open the window to the world for our students so they can clearly see the opportunities that await them after they graduate.”

The Hewlett Foundation grant will underwrite a revised and expanded version of the Roadtrip Nation Experience that will offer the program to more schools, enhance the online curriculum and teacher training materials, and include an evaluation plan to help determine the program’s effect on the dropout rate. The expanded effort will focus on Northern California schools.

Adding Content to the Open Educational Resources Movement

As part of the Hewlett Foundation’s continuing leadership in the development of Open Educational Resources, which provides free, high-quality educational materials online, the Foundation will also underwrite Roadtrip Nation Learning Exchange, an online tool where students participating in the Roadtrip Exchange will be able to share and modify video and text that other students have created based on their experiences. The Exchange will use a Creative Commons license so content can be freely shared.

By making these resources available to the public, Roadtrip Nation will be able to extend the impact of the RTN Curriculum beyond the participating students so that anyone with access to the internet can engage with this student-generated content. This resource has the potential to be the largest student-created resource of its kind, enabling educators to help students make real-world connections between their education and their future.

Joining the Roadtrip Nation staff in the project will be KQED; a college prep program for economically disadvantaged and underachieving middle- and high school students called Advancement Via Individual Determination; and California Partnership Academies, a program structured as a school within a school that offers support to students identified as being at risk for dropping out.

The Roadtrip Nation staff has already started working with regional directors of Advancement Via Individual Determination in Contra Costa County, San Francisco County, San Mateo County, and Santa Clara County to roll out the program.

“We saw such hunger and enthusiasm in these school kids,” says Roadtrip cofounder McAllister. “We really want to test the thesis.”

In another way, this latest project may be the culmination of what the trio set out to discover when they climbed into the battered green RV in search of fulfilling careers.

“This,” Marriner says of the school project, “is what we were meant to do.”