Teachers in the Workplace Add Real-World Experience to the Classroom

posted Oct 9, 2017, 7:00 AM by Granger Meador   [ updated Oct 9, 2017, 7:05 AM ]
Renee Arnold
By Renee Arnold, with contributions from Carrie Lewis, Nancy Liston, and Brett Turowski

What happens when you select four teachers from the areas of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) and ask them to be a part of an active research center as summer interns?

Carrie Lewis and Nancy Liston of Dewey Public Schools, and Renee Arnold and Brett Turowski of Bartlesville Public Schools discovered at the Phillips 66 Research Center that it is a jaw dropping experience. “We were all amazed and overwhelmed to see all the active labs and the technology these professionals work with on a day-to-day basis in so many more areas than just oil and gas” was this author’s first impression. As we spent our summer working alongside an amazing team of managers, scientists, chemists, engineers, mathematicians, researchers, and lab technicians at the Phillips 66 Research Center in Bartlesville, OK, that awe and wonder only continued to increase.

Merl Lindstrom, the Vice President of Phillips 66 Technology, had an incredible idea of providing local educators with the opportunity to participate in a paid summer internship program at the Phillips 66 Research Center. By working in STEM research activities and experiencing the corporate business world, educators would gain real-life experiences to take back to the classroom. With this influential idea, the STEM educator pilot program was born in less than two months.

This opportunity included the chance to participate in a variety of safety trainings, hands-on experiences with scientific laboratory equipment, and experiences with mathematical calculations we never knew existed or could be performed in Excel spreadsheets. “I was excited to get to do real science”, stated Nancy Liston. The voluminous amounts of data came to life before our eyes as we utilized Excel and other models by applying mathematical formulae to real world data collected by scientists with doctorates working side by side with laboratory technicians in their multitude of experiments.

During our internship, we learned that development of a technology begins with a conceptual idea, and moves into the scientific process stage where the broad foundations and hypothesis are researched and simple designs are tested on a small scale and then on a much bigger scale. The time, science, math, technology, research, engineering, energy, and frustration that go into building and conducting each experiment are phenomenal. We learned in reading schematics that each has its own language; Excel will do so much more than financial spreadsheets; and models assist in deriving and analyzing the information gleaned from the data. There are so many more units of measure than we see in our math textbooks, from the largest ones used in technology for memory storage using megabytes (106), gigabits (109), and terabytes (1012) to the smallest ones used in the labs with measurements of parts per million (10-6) and parts per billion (10-9).

Our students need exposure to this! They need to understand where, how, and why they link together.

The research that goes on here to protect our environment is unbelievable. We worked with the scientists who write the research articles to advance the science. I have two education degrees, but neither prepared me for what I would do and experience in this workplace. We came away from this experience recognizing how the students struggle to grasp concepts they feel they are not prepared to learn. As educators, we need to make sure we keep up with technology, and help students utilize the same technology they love to open a whole new world of learning opportunities for them. 

Our students have to be communicators who aren’t afraid to confidently present their work, thoughts and ideas to those at their own level as well as those above them. Students must have a broad, strong foundation in science and technology at all levels early on, not just in reading and mathematics like so much of the focus of education has been in the previous decade of public education. Students need to be able to research unfamiliar concepts to look for primary sources of information, learn new vocabulary, and teach themselves about new topics. 

As teachers, we hear the phrase, ‘We are preparing students for an unknown future.’ The work we experienced at the Research Center verifies that statement, but it also reminds us that we, our parents, and great-grandparents were educated much the same way. When our great-grandparents started school, there were very few cars around, and the airplane was invented along with the radio and telephone. Our grandparents witnessed the industrial revolution, electricity and plumbing in their homes, and our parents saw television, washers, driers, dishwashers, and mainframe computers invented and become everyday items in their homes and business. We’ve seen central heat and air conditioning, color and then digital TV, microwaves, personal computers, servers and the internet invented. 

Each generation has to be educated and prepared to face the challenges of the future. Students have to be creative and well-rounded in all areas with a strong ability to make connections to new areas of learning. They have to be independent thinkers, team players, and articulate at all levels of the workforce. They have to be willing to work with people of all cultures, at all levels of education, and be willing to embrace, accept, and communicate with this diverse workforce. 

It would be a huge benefit for more educators to spend their summers in the real business world, truly learning about and working in the workforce that we are preparing our students to be an integral part of in the future. I hope after reading this you’ll consider taking up the challenge!

Renee Arnold teaches math and language arts to 6th grade special education students at Central Middle School; Brett Turowski teaches math in the Freshman Academy at Bartlesville High School