Arizona STEM Teachers Return to Class After Summer in Industry

Ben Anderson, a high school calculus teacher, says working for a software and web development company during the summer has given him exposure to industry skills that he can take back to his students.

Ben Anderson, a high school calculus teacher, says working for a software and web development company during the summer has given him exposure to industry skills that he can take back to his students.

As Arizona students head back to class in August, so too will a group of about 50 middle and high school teachers who spent the summer working in industry as part of the University of Arizona College of Education Teachers in Industry program. The business-education partnership is in its 11th year of placing experienced teachers in Arizona industries each summer. 

Teachers in Industry aims to prepare middle and high school students for future careers in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, fields. Businesses gain from the professionalism and expertise of STEM teachers. In turn, teachers take their real-world industry experience back to the classroom to better prepare their students for careers in STEM and industries yet to be imagined, said Javier Lopez, director of the Teachers in Industry program.

"Teachers have an extra tool in their toolbox to really say (to students) why math is important, why they're learning physics and how that can relate to the careers of the future, particularly in the areas of STEM," Lopez said.

Teachers in Industry started in 2009, when Raytheon approached the university looking for help addressing a shortage of engineers. The company hoped to work with the UA to find a way to emphasize the importance of STEM earlier – during middle and high school.

Faculty member Bruce Johnson, now dean of the College of Education, was the principal investigator on the initial Teachers in Industry grant to place qualified Arizona middle and high school teachers in summer positions at companies such as Raytheon, Tucson Electric Power, Arizona Public Service and Freeport-McMoRan, a Phoenix-based mining company.

Since then, Teachers in Industry has partnered with more than 100 Arizona companies.

"Our teachers work hands-on with some of the most innovative industries on the globe, through companies like Simpleview, ROCHE Tissue Diagnostics and Raytheon," Lopez said. "On average, our teachers earn $8,000 in the summer with our partners. This not only provides a considerable financial boost for our teachers, but also a direct economic impact on our local and state economy."

In addition to their summer industry positions, participating teachers also complete graduate-level coursework in the College of Education in either a professional development track or a master's degree track. Most teachers stay in the program for about three years, Lopez said.

Ben Anderson, a high school calculus teacher, has participated in the Teachers in Industry program for two summers, working at Oro Valley-based Simpleview, a software and web development company focused on destination tourism.

He says his experience doing data analysis at Simpleview has exposed him to many of the soft skills needed to work in industry, which he can in turn pass along to his students.

"What I think is really important for my students to learn is what does it mean to be an employee at an up-and-coming tech company or a prominent tech company? What are the perks of those types of jobs; what are the expectations of you?" said Anderson, who previously taught at Marana High School and will start a new position at Ironwood Ridge High School this year. "So, I talk about soft skills. It's critical to be able to work in a group, and it's critical to be able to share information."

Ryan George, a UA alumnus and founder and CEO of Simpleview, said he decided to partner with Teachers in Industry because he's passionate about education.

"The opportunity to help encourage and educate the next generation of tech leaders – potentially entrepreneurs – had a lot of appeal, and giving these teachers another reason to get additional education and hopefully stick with the teaching profession long-term just made perfect sense," said George, who earned a degree in accounting and management information systems from the UA Eller College of Management in 1997.

George said he appreciates the high-caliber employees the Teachers in Industry program is able to provide.

"We're getting a highly educated, extremely articulate, emotionally intelligent person to work alongside our staff on certain projects, so it's certainly an extra set of hands and an extra resource," he said. "But we're hoping that they can take what they learn here back into the classroom and teach kids. That’s really the ultimate goal."

Lopez said he hopes Teachers in Industry can bring even more partner companies on board to expand opportunities for teachers across Arizona, particularly in Phoenix – where there is a lot of interest but not enough business partners – and in rural communities where teachers may have access to fewer professional development opportunities.

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