Kala Miller, a science teacher at Fairfield High School in Fairfield, Iowa, stood on the roof of John Deere’s Ottumwa Works building, the wind and view grabbing equal parts of her attention.
“That’s when it hit me,” she said. “I was working in the real world.”
For Roy Shaft Jr., an industrial technology teacher at Camanche High School, in Camanche, Iowa, it happened when his boots sunk into the hot Texas dirt.
“I was doing tire testing, and when they said I was going to the field I thought they meant out the front door and into a corn field,” he said. “No, John Deere sent me to Texas to conduct the study. The real world aspect of this program is amazing.”
Real world. Two words easily understood and often used when describing the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics ) Externship Program.
The State of Iowa program – born from the governor’s STEM Advisory Council – takes teachers and pairs them with up to 50 statewide businesses for a six-week project over the summer. The program completed its ninth season in 2017, having created the “real world” experience for nearly 420 teachers over that span.
This past summer nine Iowa teachers worked at John Deere facilities. Since 2011 there have been 46 Iowa teachers involved in Deere’s externships. The program is part of John Deere Inspire, a company-sponsored STEM program.
Garrick Herbst, a John Deere staff engineer who worked with Shaft said the program’s payoff is immediate.
“The externs utilize their unique knowledge and experience to develop innovative solutions to projects where a summer intern might struggle,” Herbst said.
The focus of the program is left up to each participating facility.
Miller helped Ottumwa’s environmental services team with a variety of projects, with tasks ranging from checking flammable cabinet inventory to measuring the stack height for air permits on the roof.
“I’ve not been in the workforce since college,” Miller said. “I tell my kids that Dad goes off to work and Mom goes off to school. This summer I got to tell them that Mom is actually going to work.”
Laura Evans, environmental manager at Ottumwa Works, said the program proved to be mutually beneficial. The John Deere facility manufactures balers, mower conditioners, windrowers, and pull-type forage harvesters. Ottumwa is located in southeast Iowa about 30 miles north of the Missouri border.
“Kala executed environmental projects while also learning about Deere’s industrial environment. It was really a win-win situation – our work at Deere got completed, and she took a wealth of knowledge back to future generations,” Evan said.
Shaft was in Silvis, Ill., at Deere’s Global Crop Harvesting Product Development Center, an engineering and testing facility. Camanche High School, where Shaft teaches, is located along the Mississippi River, about 30 miles northeast of Moline.
Clint Van Fossen, a physics and biology teacher at Davenport West High School in Davenport, Iowa, agrees. “The thing that impressed me a lot was how much the whole world is engaged,” Van Fossen said. “From the first day I was in meetings where we were working with people in Brazil, Germany, India – this was every day. Our school system is a real world for what we do. But, we’re insular.”
Van Fossen’s focus as a member of the product sustainability team at the Moline Technology Innovation Center was helping create a recyclability calculator that would be used to figure what percentage of any product’s parts – from a planter to a tractor when stripped down – could be recycled.
“We didn’t get the entire project completed in the time I was there, but we were able to make a smaller version that I can use in my classroom and show my students,” he said. “This helps take the sustainability message back to the school. It shows how important treating the environment is on a global scale.”
“There were multiple benefits of having Clint in the group,” Andy Greenlee, senior staff engineer for product sustainability, said. “Two that stand out are that Clint was able to help move a few projects toward completion. The other is that Clint, as a teacher, is able to drive the sustainability mindset beyond Deere to younger generations.”
Education’s foundation may be built on the three R’s, but the externship program had its participants raving about the two C’s—constant collaboration.
“It was obvious early on that communication is the key. I think there are a lot of things you can teach yourself or learn to do, but you have to be a communicator to expand that message,” Miller said. “Learning different systems – and the different people I needed to interact with – that all was communication. You have to be able to know what to ask for to be successful.”
Perhaps the most attractive piece to the whole thing was the collaboration and partnership with Deere. There are so many smart people that if you didn't pick their brains you were wasting an opportunity. Not only will I take those things back to my classroom, but they are also following me back to the classroom. This spring we will have a job fair and I'll be able to lean on Deere to show my students all the career paths that are available in a company like that. Really, the practical application to all of this is off the charts.”
—Roy Shaft Jr., teacher at Camanche High School
For Van Fossen it was the soft skills that sold him.
“Seeing all the communication and collaboration – and why they are important in selling ideas – is something I can apply back in my classroom. Teamwork, problem solving, explaining an idea is so key,” Van Fossen said. “Where I was at you needed to show the progress and vision for the future and then report that and sell that presentation. And, you didn’t do it alone.”
Learning was certainly front and center for the participants. Van Fossen said he never realized how important a program like Excel was until his externship.
“Even PowerPoint, from a communication standpoint. Just understanding how to use the tools to get a message across is so important,” he said.
But, they are also called teachers for a reason.
By working with Clint through the summer, we learned that we have opportunities to expand the scope of product sustainability beyond the walls of John Deere. ”
—Adam Flores, senior engineer in product sustainability