IMSEP’s Real World Externships bridge workplace and schools

With an increasing awareness of Iowa’s need for skilled workers and more math- and science-savvy citizens, 33 middle and high school math and science teachers are accepting that challenge by gaining real-world experience in the business community this summer as part of the Iowa Mathematics and Science Education Partnership’s (IMSEP) Real World Externships for Teachers of Mathematics and Science program.

Led by the University of Northern Iowa in partnership with Iowa State University and the University of Iowa, IMSEP is a state-funded initiative with goals of improving mathematics and science performance of Iowa students, preparing more high-quality mathematics and science teachers for Iowa’s schools, and promoting statewide collaboration and cooperation.

Last summer, IMSEP piloted this program by matching ten teachers with nine Iowa businesses and organizations around the state. Thanks to funding from the Iowa Department of Economic Development and the grassroots buzz generated by last year’s participating teachers and businesses, the 2010 Real World Externship class grew over 300% to include 33 teachers from schools in all four corners of the state. From across the state, businesses have enthusiastically joined the program where, for little or no investment, they gain a highly skilled teacher for six weeks of project work they might not have been able to do otherwise. Businesses joining the Real World Externship program this year include Abbe Hills Farm, Mount Vernon; ACE Hardware, Mount Vernon; Allen Memorial Hospital, Waterloo; Alliant Energy, Cedar Rapids/Marshalltown/Dubuque; City of Carroll, Carroll; ConAgra Foods, Council Bluffs; Diamond Vogel Paints, Orange City; Diversified Industries/Sundenga, George; Ellison Technologies Automation, Council Bluffs; Genencor, Cedar Rapids; General Mills Inc., Cedar Rapids; Hy-Vee, Des Moines Corporate/Waterloo; Iowa Department of Natural Resources, Boone/Des Moines/Sioux City; Kemin Industries Inc., Des Moines; Lee County Conservation, Montrose; Monsanto Company, Ankeny/Muscatine; Pella Corporation, Pella; Principal Financial Group, Des Moines; Procter & Gamble, Cedar Rapids; Rockwell Collins, Cedar Rapids; and Wells’ Dairy Inc., Le Mars.

“Shalia is already a professional,” said Stephanie Wharton, a nutritionist with Hy-Vee in Waterloo and the business host for Shalia Moore, a middle school science teacher in the Waterloo school district. “She’s interested in teaching her kids nutrition and health issues, so giving her assignments like facilitating workshops and doing research for heart-healthy recipes to share at our in-store cooking classes has been incredibly successful. And I learn right along with her—we recently did a workshop at a Girl Scout event, and her experience as a teacher helped me rally the group and teach them a little about healthy eating. This has been a great experience.”

A desired outcome of the Real World Externships is to create sustaining partnerships between current teachers of science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM) in Iowa middle/high schools and local businesses or industry. Based on the company’s needs, a teacher is matched for the summer to learn how STEM skills are applied in real-world organizations outside the classroom. Teachers can then bring their new skills and insights back into the classroom to enhance their teaching and inspire students to pursue careers in math and science fields.

“This has been an awesome experience,” said Mike Wedge, a science teacher from Sibley-Ocheyedan High School, who is spending the summer with Diamond Vogel’s senior chemist, Chuck Mork, experimenting with pigments and the effects of different ingredients in the company’s paint labs. “I’ve learned how to really ‘do’ science, even though I’ve been teaching for some time.”

The experience is mutually rewarding for both Wedge and Diamond Vogel. “Mike is working with us on several industrial research projects and has helped me develop new methods that wouldn’t have been completed without his help,” said Mork.

To take his experience back to his students, Wedge will incorporate a more project-focused hands-on approach to his science lessons and will have Mork visit his classroom as a guest speaker.

“This is what we’ve been hearing all summer,” said Jason Lang, who oversees the Real World Externships program for IMSEP. “We have teachers in research labs with several businesses across the state; teachers on manufacturing floors learning about the math needed to do CNC machining and programming robots; and teachers outdoors with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources doing species surveys and habitat restoration. The experiences are as varied as the teachers’ interests, and it looks to be a win/win for businesses and teachers again this year.”

And, ultimately, a win/win for Iowa.

“As we know, Iowa’s workforce is becoming more and more technology driven,” said Jeff Weld, IMSEP director. “Our students need to know more about what cool things are happening in the real world and how their future can be linked to their interest in math and science topics. The more we can spark that interest, the more kids we will have going into technology-driven careers or, better yet, becoming math and science teachers.”

To see a list of teachers and businesses participating in Real World Externships for Teachers of Mathematics and Science this year, as well as more information about the Real World Externships program, go to www.iowamathscience.org/externships/.

For more information regarding IMSEP, go to www.iowamathscience.org.