A small but growing number of science and math teachers aren't spending the summer at the beach or catching up on books, they're toiling at companies, practicing the principles they teach.
As American education focuses on closing the gap between the classroom and employers' needs, programs in North Carolina, California and elsewhere are putting teachers temporarily in the workplace.
Chris England is one of those teachers using a fellowship that starts with a summer spell with a company, university or government agency. He is wrapping up a five-week stint in the research and development labs of a Danish company in Franklinton, about 30 miles north of Raleigh. The 25-year-old science teacher went straight to work at nearby Louisburg High School after graduating from college.
"Being able to actually do an experiment and see the problems that come up from that experiment, try to analyze my data, see the problems in my data, revise my experiment — that's stuff that I never did when I was in college," England said.
Now he's working alongside scientists at the company Novozymes, trying to determine whether enzymes — proteins produced by microorganisms that speed up chemical reactions — can be used to capture carbon dioxide at coal-fired power plants. England said he's become more nimble with lab equipment and realized that science-based companies also need office managers and custodial workers.
"It means when I'm going to give career advice, I'm no longer faking it," England said. "I went straight from college into education. I had no, quote, real-world experience. And so when I would give kids career advice, it would be kind of vague. Now it's much more concrete."
England is one of hundreds of North Carolina teachers since 2003 given year-long fellowships of up to $10,000 to improve their intimacy with science, starting with a summer spell with a company, university or government agency. The initiative of the Kenan Institute for Engineering, Technology & Science at North Carolina State University gets its funding from foundations, companies and the National Science Foundation.
Graduates have prepared lesson plans for other teachers on topics ranging from the study of the mutation that causes sickle cell anemia to examining demographic data to understanding income inequality around the world.
The effort has gained momentum since a consortium of San Francisco area companies and the University of California at Berkeley created a summer fellowship program for teachers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields in 1985. The Industry Initiatives for Science and Math Education summer fellowship pays teachers $8,200 for eight full-time work weeks and a project for the host company. They also focus 10 percent of their paid time on how to transfer their new knowledge back to their students and colleagues.
A Teachers in Industry program in the Fargo, North Dakota, area has for the past four years been placing educators at local companies such as Bobcat and John Deere Electronic Solutions.
When teachers engage in hands-on science, it improves student achievement, researchers at Columbia and Michigan State universities reported in 2009. Science test scores for students in New York City improved by 10 percent in the years after their teacher participated in a summer program, the researchers found.
A research firm last year surveyed teachers who participated in the IISME program in California. Teachers reported that after their internship, struggling students interested in science became more motivated to explore a science career and more often recognized the real-world applications of their studies.
Brittani Mallard-Metts spent a couple of weeks at Internet gear maker Cisco Systems Inc. last summer thanks to a program run by the group North Carolina New Schools. Describing the multi-continent video training sessions and workplace got the attention of her students in rural Duplin County, about 80 miles southeast of Raleigh, where the major employers are pork and poultry producers and processers.
"You know when your parents say something, it's like whatever, but if a total stranger tells them the same thing, they get it? Sometimes it's the same thing with a teacher," Mallard-Metts said. "I was able to say. 'I spent these weeks at Cisco, and this is what I did, and this is what I got out of it, and this is how you can use this in your life.' And It made it more valid to them."
Emery Dalesio can be reached at http://twitter.com/emerydalesio