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Third-grade teacher Cheryl Bombenger spent four weeks as an intern at Ulteig as part of the Teachers in Industry K-12 Teacher Internship Program, created to provide teachers with hands-on engineering industry experience. PHOTO: ULTEIG

INTERNSHIPS: Teaching teachers

A unique program developed by the Greater Fargo Moorhead Economic Development Corp., North Dakota State University and the West Fargo STEM Center to provide engineering internships for K-12 teachers is receiving rave reviews from interns and industry alike. Now in its third year, the program was initially created to bridge the gap between education and industry, providing teachers with the opportunity to see the engineering design process put to use in real-world situations and inspire them to translate their experience back to students.

Since its pilot year in 2011, the program has grown from just one participant to six this year, including Microsoft, Sanford Health, John Deere Electronic Solutions, Bobcat Co., Ulteig and Moore Engineering. Companies are asked to provide interns a learning experience four days a week for four weeks and contribute $1,000 toward the intern's $2,000 stipend. Representatives say the effort and cost is worthwhile in order to support STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) learning for the next wave of potential employees and many stand ready to sign up for future years and to possibly expand the program to more communities within their reach.

"The companies have been great," says Lisa Gulland-Nelson, GFMEDC vice president of marketing and public relations. "They work really hard to make the program successful and beneficial to the teacher."

JDES was the first company to sign on in 2011 and has hosted interns every year since. Sam Wheeldon, technical manager - electronic design at JDES, says the company strives to support STEM-related activities throughout the region as part of John Deere's global initiative to inspire future workers through STEM education and real-world experiences. "These efforts allow us to develop closer partnerships with local schools and teachers which have and continue to enable future STEM ties," he says. "John Deere considers STEM literacy increasingly important for all students regardless of career choice to support 21st century learning and jobs."

Sanford Health, Bobcat and Microsoft have taken part in the program since 2012. Sanford's office of continuous improvement employs five engineers who focus on improving efficiencies and patient satisfaction throughout the network. Director David Peterson says the organization has enjoyed taking part in the internship program and hopes to continue to participate in future years. "The [department] is always interested in helping out the community and it seemed like a great fit to have our engineers mentor a teacher in this way," he says.

Ulteig and Moore Engineering were both first-time participants in the program this year, but representatives from both firms say they would gladly take part again. "I think it's our responsibility to give back," says Sharon Miller, Ulteig's human resources director. "Also, we are influencing young people who could eventually be on our staff. We're influencing the future workforce."

Joni Smith, human resources manager at Moore Engineering, says that while it can be a challenge for busy staff to train and advise the intern, the program was "absolutely" worth the effort. "We thought it was a good idea for a teacher to take back to the classroom real-life examples of the workforce and how they can apply things like math to the classroom," she says.

Teacher interns are selected through an application process. This year's participants included special education teachers, elementary teachers and high school science, math and business education teachers. Bradley Bowen, an assistant professor at NDSU, serves as the program administrator and ensures that the teachers have a good experience.

Third-grade teacher Cheryl Bombenger had already been incorporating STEM teaching into her classroom for several years prior to her internship at Ulteig this summer and says she became passionate about STEM after hearing "grim" statistics about the lack of STEM-related workers in the U.S. She plans to use her intern experience to continue teaching students about various aspects of engineering, but particularly how to apply problem-solving thinking to all parts of life. "When we think about engineering we always think about the really hard stuff that engineers have to do," she says. "[Engineers] speak a miraculous language that is really hard for the rest of us to understand, but as a third-grader what we're talking about is the engineering design process, which is really just a thinking process. Even as little tiny kids, they can do that." PB

Kris Bevill

Editor, Prairie Business