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Schools are always trying to get their kids interested in pursuing careers in science, engineering and technology. But that’s hard to do when the students don’t have a solid idea of what having a STEM-related job really means.

A model of molecules. Credit: Jackie Mader for The Hechinger Report

“I don’t think there’s a good connection between the classroom and what people actually do in their jobs,” said Beth Bryan, a middle-school enrichment teacher in Edmond, Oklahoma.

So Bryan was happy to be one of five teachers selected last summer for a pilot program in her state that gives teachers real-life experience in STEM fields. The program, run by Oklahoma’s department of education, aimed to give teachers a more concrete understanding of the applications of science and technology – by getting their hands on some actual concrete.

The five teachers participated in a paid, two-week externship at Terracon, an engineering firm in Oklahoma City. The goal was to help teachers learn more about the practical applications of what they teach, in fields like construction and environmental testing. A typical day might involve touring a concrete-making lab, testing soil samples or visiting a construction site.

The pilot was successful enough that the state is expanding it this year. It’s accepting applications for 18 to 20 more externships – at Terracon again, as well as at the manufacturing firm Kimray, the Oklahoma University Health Sciences Center and possibly one or two other sites.

“We got them exposed to about everything that we do,” said Phil Wood, Terracon’s regional manager. “They seemed very excited and motivated go back and tell their students what goes on in the real world, so that was very gratifying.”

Wood wants to encourage more students to pursue engineering.

“It’s a challenge to find the right people for the right jobs many times,” he said. “If we can get more people in the pipeline, if you will, that’s going to benefit us long-term.”

Bryan used what she learned in the externship for an interdisciplinary project on starting a business. Students had to select what kind of property they wanted to buy for their firms, using real environmental reports from Terracon for guidance.

“It really made them take some ownership about the project because it was more real-life based,” she said.

For Sarah McDowell, another participant, the most useful aspect of the program was that she could explain to her students the practical applications of what they learn in class. She teaches science in 7th through 12th grades in rural Butner, Oklahoma.

“You could say, ‘You use this if you’re in the construction business, in drilling, in testing the soils, in X-raying the walls to find where cracks in the concrete are,’” she said.

McDowell also appreciated being able to ask engineers at Terracon how they got their jobs. Since her school district is so small – only around 230 students from pre-K to 12th grade – she also helps with career counseling. Oklahoma will require all 6th through 12th graders to have an individualized career plan by 2025.

“Everything I learned from the engineering company I could bring back to my kids as it pertains to Oklahoma,” she said.

The goal of this program wasn’t just to make kids excited about science – the state hopes it will make teachers more excited about their own jobs, as well. The idea for the program came from Oklahoma’s Teacher Shortage Task Force. According to the Oklahoma State School Boards Association, in August, 2017, there were more than 500 teaching vacancies in Oklahoma. The state approved more than 1,400 emergency teaching certificates, allowing schools to hire people who were not yet certified teachers.

“This is the most intense professional development that one could have, so it really speaks to the retention of teachers,” said Robyn Miller, a deputy superintendent at the state Department of Education.

But McDowell said she didn’t join the program because she need any extra motivation to stay in her profession: “I’m a teacher. That’s what I am.”

This story about STEM teacher training was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.

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