Learning through hands-on experience

Matt Bruns, a science teacher at Troy Junior Senior High School, talks about his experience as an “extern” through the Idaho STEM Action Center’s pilot program this summer at Vista Outdoor in Lewiston.

LEWISTON — Science teacher Matt Bruns wants to bring real-world experience to his students at Troy Junior Senior High School.

To better understand industry standards in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields, Bruns participated in a summer “externship” that immersed him in the latest practices and technologies.

Bruns was placed at Vista Outdoor in Lewiston, where he was required to work at least 200 hours during the five-week pilot program put on by the Idaho STEM Action Center and the Idaho Workforce Development Council. Participants in the program earn a $5,000 stipend.

Bruns, an educator of almost 14 years, plans to take the skills he’s gleaned and turn them into a learning opportunity for the seventh- through 12th-graders he teaches.

“I think it’s really important sometimes to just take yourself out of the classroom for a while and see what the world is like, so what you are teaching is more authentic,” Bruns said. “That way you have a better awareness of what actually is going on in the world, because things change all the time.”

Angela Hemingway, executive director of the Idaho STEM Action Center, said the program is important because there are many educators in the state who have not had “significant adult work experience outside of the classroom.”

Hemingway is a prime example. She graduated with a degree in education and jumped straight into teaching at the age of 22.

“We are the ones tasked with preparing the future workforce ... but it made it difficult for me to coach students in jobs I’ve only read about online,” Hemingway said.

The “externships” allow teachers to see the different facets of the fields, create connections with industry and better understand what is expected in today’s workforce.

Bruns worked in a variety of departments at the business that designs, manufactures and markets products in the outdoor sports and recreation markets. He spent time on the assembly line, worked with the engineering and quality assurance departments and analyzed the composition of raw samples at the materials science lab.

Bruns completed weekly journals and two written reports documenting his experience, which brought him up to date on an ever-evolving field.

“It’s really important that we stay in tune with the demand. Our job is to help train and to help educate that next generation,” Bruns said. “With the world changing so quickly, it’s really important for us to be connected to what those changes are, so we know what types of opportunities to nurture for students.”

Jobs in the science, engineering, technology and mathematics fields are prevalent across the state.

Last year, there were more than 6,300 STEM job openings in Idaho, Hemingway said.

“Those jobs were available, and Idahoans didn’t take them, so that translated to over $400 million in lost income,” Hemingway said. “If we could fill those jobs, not only is it leading to increased personal income, but it leads to increases in our tax base as well, so it’s something we’ve got to figure out and fill that gap.”

That number has since grown. Last month, there were more than 7,800 job openings.

Justin Ruegsegger, manufacturing and engineering manager for Vista Outdoor, oversaw Bruns as he worked through the program. He hopes it will be renewed for another year.

“We’re most definitely interested in doing this again,” Ruegsegger said.

Bruns was the only program participant in northern Idaho, with the remaining 15 located mostly in the southern parts of the state, particularly around the Boise area.

The Idaho STEM Action Center will work with the teachers through the fall as the center analyzes data it collected. That will determine if the program will continue.

“We need to know if what they’ve learned here has a valuable impact on their classroom,” Hemmingway said.

Justyna Tomtas may be contacted at jtomtas@lmtribune.com or (208) 848-2294. Follow her on Twitter @jtomtas.

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