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K12 educator externships provide practical STEM experiences

  • HANDS-ON STEM—As part of Iowa’s STEM externship program, science teachers from around the state work in real-world science settings, including in working laboratories and in the field doing environmental research.
  • HANDS-ON STEM—As part of Iowa’s STEM externship program, science teachers from around the state work in real-world science settings, including in working laboratories and in the field doing environmental research.

An externship program run by the Oklahoma State Department of Education expanded this summer, allowing K12 teachers to gain professional STEM experiences they can bring back to the classroom.

During the pilot last year, teachers tested soil samples and worked in a concrete-making lab, among other activities, during a paid two-week externship at an Oklahoma City engineering firm.

These programs provide hands-on authenticity that better informs instruction and boosts teacher confidence, says David Evans, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association.

“Most science teachers have never worked in a science environment or spent time in a laboratory,” says Evans.

The NSTA’s Northrop Grumman Foundation Teachers Academy offers another two-week externship. Middle school teachers work with scientists and engineers at a Northrop Grumman facility to develop project-based lessons that align with Next Generation Science Standards.

Teaching practical skills

Oklahoma adapted its initiative from an ongoing program in Iowa that has provided nearly 500 externships since launching in 2009.

Iowa’s program, operated under the Governor’s STEM Advisory Council, offers full-time, six-week summer positions at local businesses for secondary teachers of mathematics, science and/or technology. Teachers earn a stipend of up to $4,800 (including two days of professional development), plus one graduate credit through the University of Northern Iowa.

Seventy-five teachers participated this past summer, says Jason Lang, program coordinator. Experiences ranged from streamlining the extrusion process at a local plastics manufacturer to performing environmental testing for the Iowa Hygienic Lab.

“Every single year, teachers go in thinking they’re going to apply their content knowledge, and by week three, they realize that content may not be as important as much as creativity, collaboration, critical thinking and communication,” says Lang, a biology and science teacher at Cedar Falls High School.

Teaching those skills in the classroom is key to guiding students toward future success, Lang says.

Return on investment

The biggest challenge with an externship program is funding, says NSTA’s Evans, who estimates it can cost up to $7,000 per year per teacher.

Iowa’s program started with seed money from the state, and then earned a $1.3 million grant from the National Science Foundation in 2010. Since then, the program has relied on state grants and business partners to pay stipends.

“The businesses are pleasantly surprised every year,” says Lang. “They say, ‘These people did an amazing amount of work in a short period of time. They’re self-starting and ask questions when questions need to be asked.’”

Externships must set clear goals for both businesses and teachers, Lang says. Rather than a simple job shadow, the experience should allow a teacher to solve an actual problem.

“Teachers want to do things, they want to contribute, they want to be part of that organization and give things back,” says Lang. “They may not finish a project in six weeks, but they can move the ball forward.”