Workforce program pairs teachers with tech firms

A Jerome teacher is spending her summer wearing VR headsets and working with 3D graphics at a Boise virtual reality startup in hopes of helping her students become the next developers, programmers and engineers.

Penni Aufderheide, who teaches music and coaches robotics at Summit Elementary, is one of 16 Idaho educators who are spending their summers participating in a new externship pilot program supported by the STEM Action Center and the Workforce Development Council.

“I’m on a summer adventure,” Aufderheide said. “This is the STEM Action Center’s way of giving a teacher real world experience.”

Penni Aufderheide works with 3D and virtual reality programs at the Boise startup Blocksmith.

STEM Action Center created the program after pulling data from the State Board of Education that showed 90 percent of teachers did not have any significant adult work experience outside of an educational environment, Executive Director Angela Hemingway said.

The STEM Action Center already offered half-day training seminars at businesses to highlight technology and expose teacher to an office setting.

But educators were asking Hemingway for more.

With the externships, teachers can form a deeper connection with a job or a firm and learn from executives and co-workers what skills students will need and what expectations are like.

What surprised Aufderheide the most is that she didn’t need to be an expert engineer or a master of coding to be successful. Her new bosses valued critical thinking, problem solving, teamwork and communication skills.

In particular, thy valued her experience as an educator to help with writing and editing.

“They need thinkers and creators,” Aufderheide said.

For her externship, Aufderheide is working 200 hours this summer at Blocksmith, a Boise-based virtual reality startup. Blocksmith offers programs and platforms that allow people to create 3D “assets” for rich virtual reality experiences. Its office on the Boise bench has things like VR headsets and joysticks to play with.

Idaho National Laboratory and Micron are also hosting teachers as externs this summer.

Blocksmith co-founder Markus Nigrin said his firm was happy to partner with the STEM Action Center to work with a teacher. Blocksmith promoted the program on social media in February because Nigrin believes it could play a big role in preparing the future workforce his industry will need when teachers return to the classroom and inspire students to start down that path.

“This is not trivial,” Nigrin said. “This is the most tangible thing I have seen.”

As part of her externship, Aufderheide is writing a report for the STEM Action center and blogging about her experience. She’ll receive a $5,000 stipend for her externship, with portions of it paid for by the STEM Action Center and a Workforce Development grant.

But what Aufderheide’s is focused on most are the 6,300 unfilled Idaho STEM jobs that Hemingway talks to policymakers about and how she can help translate them to careers for her students.

“I wrote in my application that I want to help my students get out of poverty,” Aufderheide said.

If the program works, Hemingway wants to partner with more local businesses and firms to develop a cost share and expand externships to more teachers next summer.

“If this program can successfully translate back to the classroom experience and better prepare student to take jobs of the future, then this is a program we want expand, enhance and build,” Hemingway said.

More information about the STEM Action Center is available on its website. Anyone interested in externships may send an email to program coordinator John McFarlane.



Clark Corbin

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