During her Iowa Math and Science Education Partnership Real World Externship, Jenna Noble of George-Little Rock High School in George, Iowa, worked with Sudenga Industries, learning the science behind the welding, programming, robotics, and other aspects of the company’s manufacturing process. Noble is shown welding machinery test strips to learn about the process, which she’ll be able to incorporate into her chemistry units to give real-life application to chemical bonding.
Teachers of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) know the importance of communicating to students the relevance of what they are learning to a future career. Across the country, programs like the Washington Alliance for Better Schools (WABS) STEM Industry Externships are “[building] teacher capacity to provide real-world STEM experiences and career information to the classroom [by providing] valuable, hands-on professional experience to teachers in STEM-related industries; [increasing] teacher career and industry awareness and involvement in STEM education; and [bringing] engaging math and science real-world applications to the classroom,” says WABS Executive Director Emily Yim.
In the WABS program, “math, science, and Career and Technical Education teachers participate in a three-week summer industry externship complemented by professional development in content standards and an introduction to problem-based learning. Teachers then attend three follow-up sessions throughout the following school year to further integrate what they learned during their summer into their classrooms,” she explains, adding “this is an eye-opening experience that enables teachers to apply immediate, digestible changes to their classrooms to engage students in STEM.”
The United Technologies Corporation (UTC)/NSTA STEM Externship Program offers work experiences to Connecticut teachers for six weeks each summer. Externs work at UTC companies, which provide high-technology products and support services to the aerospace and building systems industries. Roberta Downer of Middletown High School in Middletown, Connecticut, says she applied for the 2012 program because she was eager to observe engineers at work. “My background is in chemistry, and I had very little experience with engineering. I was hoping that the exposure would allow me the opportunity to have a different perspective to share with my students. I selected material science, as I felt it would provide a good common ground for the two fields.”
At Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation’s Materials & Process Engineering Lab, Downer says she worked with engineers and lab technicians who “primarily analyze parts that fail on the aircraft from production, the field, and during testing.” One project she worked on involved blade-fold harnesses.
Nine harnesses that failed in the field were sent to the engineer “to determine the root cause of this failure mode” and prevent the failure from reoccurring, she says. “The harnesses were submitted to the lab, where I assisted with the non-destructive testing that was performed. The parts were first photographed,” then x-rayed “with a Real-Time X-Ray manufactured by Metris. X-rays were taken of each harness. The x-ray is captured on a computer monitor, and photographs of the x-rays are taken to record the results and to be used in the engineers report. We determined that the harnesses all fractured at the same location in a non-dynamic section of the harness. Also, [we] discovered that one of the harnesses fractured at the innermost section, but the outer casing was undamaged,” she notes.
“I found the science fascinating,”and “each day I learned something new and was introduced to new people,” she says. “I observed many areas of science that are relevant to my classroom, including titrations, electroplating, material strength, and dimensional analysis. I will be discussing the correlation between our scientific investigations and general engineering practices, highlighting the similarities and differences.”
She adds, “From a materials perspective, I was able to observe some of the carbon fiber materials being implemented in the latest aircraft model...currently under construction. I was also able to see how this material implementation improved over the previously-used metals. I witnessed how the materials, combined with the intricate engineering methods, yielded new technology that was being implemented.”
Successful Externship Keys
“Getting a good match between mentor and teacher” is crucial to a program’s success, says UTC/NSTA externship program supervisor Sandra Justin. “Teachers [who apply] are asked for subjects taught, background, and areas of interest. The applications are then forwarded to all the UTC units, and the engineers choose the applicant to match their job/interest/need,” she explains.
Before the work begins, “we have two sessions in which we discuss expectations and have former participants share their experiences. The mentors are there also, so there are two opportunities for discussion and ‘getting to know you.’ Engineers are also invited to the classroom of the teacher. Some do presentations and are there all day,” she notes.
Jeff Weld, director of the Iowa Mathematics and Science Education Partnership’s (IMSEP) Real World Externships for Teachers program, says he and his staff seek “a challenging long-term project that inspires the teacher to use her/his content knowledge and problem-solving skills to help the business solve a real challenge” and “a business host who understands the ‘big picture’ behind this project—to enhance student learning…Often, teachers solve big challenges that vex a company, or some have saved companies hundreds of thousands of dollars. [Those are] nice, but not the main thing. And sometimes a business wants a crackerjack well-versed in thermodynamics or some obscure engineering niche, and we want to send a well-rounded middle school general science teacher to them for the growth opportunity. Those who get the ‘big picture’ welcome the generalists and work with extant skill sets.”
“Our extern hosts have been very willing to shape summer experiences that allow teachers to be successful in the tasks that they do,” adds Jason Lang, supervisor of IMSEP’s program. “We believe that teachers willing to set aside six weeks of their summer to improve their teaching deserve our best effort to help them find an externship that will allow them to grow professionally.” Often, he notes, “we have teachers reach out to our program, asking if we could help them set up an externship in their local area.”
In return, “we need teachers that are willing to take a chance and get out of the comfort zone of teaching. They also need to be able to communicate well with their extern host and program supervisors and be willing to remain flexible to the possible twists and turns that may arise during the summer,” Lang maintains. Extern hosts “often comment on the ability of our teachers to jump into a project with little guidance and quickly show progress on the assignments they are given. Teachers have…shown the ability to ask the right questions and be self-directed in the task they are given. We’ve had teachers learn the skills of lab technicians, researchers, computer programmers, and engineers in a very short time and truly be able to contribute to the goals and in some cases, the bottom line of the extern hosts,” he contends.
Downer says, “I was impressed by the safety measures observed at the Sikorsky lab. I was able to find new ways to improve the safety measures that I implement in my lab. Improved signage to mark experiments in progress, as well as labeling danger areas more efficiently. I plan to do a project with my students on corrosion, based on my experiences. The students will be given several samples of metals or alloys to test and report their data on. They will test the effect of salt water, acid rain, and rain on their respective metals or alloys. As a collective, they will compile their individual results to discuss the possible methods of prevention, then design an experiment to test their prevention method.”
Last year’s externs also found their experiences transformational. Brendan Wilkosz of Berlin High School in Berlin, Connecticut, worked at UTC Power “helping to gather data and research a coating process involving electrodes within fuel-cell power plants.” He says his work “really caused a shift in my philosophical approach to education. I teach chemistry and biology as content topics, but now, I really strive to have my students become better problem solvers and more confident in tackling increasingly challenging problems. I accomplish these goals through the content of science and not the other way around.”
Wilkosz maintains a relationship with UTC Power staff. “I have used this experience as a springboard to bring students to UTC Power to speak with experts and get powerful advice from practicing professionals about the impact of their high school and college education on their career prospects.”
Brian Olsen of Enfield High School in Enfield, Connecticut, worked with mechanical engineers at Otis Elevator. “We ran a series of tests on prototype elevator machines and measured and collected data on things such as sound intensity, sound prominence, and thermal data, and we additionally tested elevator brakes. It was our job to see if the machines met industry quality standards and report our findings to the engineers who built the machines.”
Olsen says he “realized how important it is to get outside the classroom and gain valuable experience in the work settings, and as a science teacher, to keep up to date on new technology and concepts.” Seeing how the engineers “used Microsoft Excel extensively to collect, analyze, and graph data,” he says he “set up a series of labs that required collecting quantitative data. I taught my students how to use Excel to analyze and graph that data in a meaningful way.”
During her WABS STEM Industry Externship, Sherri Taliaferro of Totem Middle School in Marysville, Washington, worked at Boeing, where she says she “was able to witness what it takes to build a plane, from its inception to the completion of the final product.” While she found “the entire experience…astoundingly mind-blowing,” she points out that “more than anything else, the mandatory collaboration and teamwork that exist in order to create the final product, and the tremendous sense of ownership and pride held by all Boeing employees in their finished product are characteristics that can benefit all businesses, schools, and science labs.” She adds, “My entire school…will be using one of the team-building activities” from Boeing because it “will give teachers a team-building strategy that will also help reinforce how working hard and exhibiting great effort are keys to being a successful learner.”