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Time Out of the Classroom Made Me a Better STEM Teacher

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Three lessons from a teacher internship program

By

Deb Harding

You can’t read the news without stumbling onto an article related to the STEM skills gap.

In many schools around the country, including my own in Colorado, educators and students are opting into problem-based learning and STEM programs to help fill that gap. Yet early benchmarks indicate this approach is not yet producing the science, technology, engineering, and math workers we need.

The STEM sector experienced job growth of 10.5 percent between 2009 and 2015, compared with a net growth of only 5.2 in non-STEM occupations, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Yet, only 26 percent of ACT-tested high school graduates met a “college ready” benchmark in STEM in 2016, according to a report from the testing organization.

—Getty

And then there is the divide between low-income and affluent school districts. Where I teach, many of my students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch and don’t have access to STEM professionals within their daily lives. They have hard-working role models, but not necessarily people who are engaged in the computer science field, the subject I teach.

I had this awareness in the back of my mind when I decided to apply to a summer teacher internship program at the Colorado BioScience Institute. The program places teachers in Fortune 500 companies to gain first-hand research and development experience in the STEM field.

Before the first day of my internship at Level 3 Communications (now known as CenturyLink)—the telecommunications company I was assigned to—I made a mental list of what I thought I needed to learn: specific activities to engage students, areas for job opportunities for them, and the day-to-day tasks of real-life computer science practitioners. I wanted to make sure that I would be learning skills that could help prepare my students for the real world, be that writing code or knowing something as simple as how to check their email.

“Since returning to the classroom after my summer in the corporate world, I continue to draw on my real-world experiences.”

Looking back, I learned far more.

I hope other educators and parents embrace some of the core lessons I learned from my experience in order to help prepare our students for a successful future:

Learning is a social process in today’s world. As one summer colleague told me, the approach to solving a problem is to try 1,000 ideas until you find the one that works. In the team I worked with over the summer, we knew we’d encounter mistakes, but we accepted those mistakes as stepping stones to a better solution.

It’s important to encourage students to build a smarter toolbox. If students practice using their “toolbox” in school, they will be equipped to solve bigger problems down the road. The focus of today’s work environment is on the application of skills—qualities not necessarily measured by standardized assessments—including creativity and innovation, communication and collaboration, critical thinking and willingness to make mistakes while problem-solving.

We need to shift our thinking about technology in schools. Teachers are working hard to use new, more effective learning tools. But the education system needs to embrace the notion of teaching students about the technology itself, not just allowing them to be daily tech consumers.

Students need to be challenged as innovative developers of new technology through their formal education. The need for this at an institutional level is increasingly important, yet schools do not have sufficient time, flexibility, or resources to offer these types of curricula. That’s why collaborations with corporate organizations such as my summer internship can be valuable for teachers.

Since returning to the classroom after my summer in the corporate world, I continue to draw on my real-world experiences to provide my students with problem-based-learning experiences. For example, my students have investigated the issue of cyber threats to design and develop an interactive learning tool to teach others how to reduce personal risk of cyber threats. I encourage them to not only use technology to solve a problem, but also to invent new technologies that fit their needs.

Who knows, maybe someday my students will be in the news for uncovering, or, better yet, stopping, the next big malware strain.

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Deb Harding

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