February 27, 2024

Local teachers partner with county conservation in STEM externships

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When teachers Carly Sis and Angie Richards head back to their classrooms this fall, they’ll have something in common with their students — both went to camp this summer.

Sis, who teaches sixth-grade biology in Grinnell, and Richards, who teaches high school science at Lynnville-Sully, spent the summer working as “externs” for Jasper County Conservation.

During the course of the six-week, 40 hours per week externship, the two teachers have been helping staff at the conservation center run summer camps and have worked to closely align existing class offerings with core standards teachers need to meet.

“By matching the teachers’ skills and abilities with the goals of the extern host there is a tremendous return on the investment of time and effort put into the externship,” said Jason Lang, who manages the STEM Teacher Externships Program.

Jason’s wife, Meghan Lang, is the program coordinator and observes, “the teachers who often focus on the content knowledge that may be needed in the workplace setting. Instead, they very quickly recognize that the jobs of the future are also about 21st Century Skills. The workforce of tomorrow is all about creativity, collaboration, critical thinking and communication.”

Since 2009, the program has been partly funded by grants from the National Science Foundation, the Iowa Economic Development Authority, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources REAP-CEP, along with cost-share investments by Iowa business and industry partners. This year’s contributions from workplace hosts totals approximately $160,000 in addition to the STEM Council’s matching investment.

Teachers are matched with workplaces near their school districts based on that organization’s needs and the teacher’s skills, STEM content area and interests. By keeping the matches local, school-business partnerships develop and last throughout the coming school year and beyond, making students more aware of the skills needed to fill the jobs in the city or community they live in.

This is the first year Jasper County Conservation has participated in the program. Director Keri Van Zante said the experience has been positive and she’s hoping to continue the program in years to come.

“They’re fabulous. There’s no other word for them, they are both fabulous,” Van Zante said.

Sis, an avid outdoorswoman, said participating in the externship has been a fantastic experience. After spending part of the summer reviewing the classes Jasper County Conservation offers, she sees the program as a “hidden gem.” Her favorite classes have combined both nature and art, two of her favorite subjects.

Earlier this summer, Jasper County Conservation hosted a Princess Camp; girls were encouraged to wear their princess dresses and tiaras, while they spent the afternoon dissecting flowers and learning about science.

“It’s been a good chunk of the summer, but it’s been so fun, it’s hard to believe it’s almost over at this point.”

Together, Richards and Sis helped Van Zante review the classes Jasper County Conservation offers to local school districts and helped the group match those classes to statewide educational standards. Pairing the classes offered with the educational standards they meet makes it easier for teachers to choose classes for their students. Many of the area schools, including the Newton Community School District, have an agreement with Jasper County Conservation which allows teachers to select different field trips and classes they can participate in with their students.

“That was one of the main things I asked them to do, to match our existing curriculum up with the core standards,” Van Zante said. “We want to present options to teachers, they can look through our menu of options and figure out how they can meet those standards.”

Simplifying the process for teachers will likely the boost interest in the classes, Sis said.

“We helped align their programs to educational standards, and we’ve been working on helping them building new curriculum as well,” Sis said. “The teachers know exactly what standards are getting covered in their classroom.”

In addition to reviewing existing classes Jasper County Conservation offers, both Richards and Sis created their own class offerings this summer. Richards, a self-described “space nerd,” created a Space Camp at Jasper County Conservation. Students received hands-on experience with telescopes and built their own rockets during the one-day camp.

“I just think it was amazing that I got to put two of my favorite things, science and nature, together with kids,” Richards said.

Richards, a mother of two boys, also got to spend the summer with her children — both of her kids attended the camps as campers, although she teased them they wouldn’t be able to call her mom.

“It’s been awesome working at the camps, but it also gave my kids a chance to come to the camps, as well, It was kind of a win-win for me,” Richards said. “They want to come back next year and have me sign them up for different camps.”

Contact David Dolmage at 641-792-3121 ext. 6532 or ddolmage@newtondailynews.com