Cascade High School science teacher Alisha Smith, just like the rest of her professional counterparts, has not been in front of students in a traditional classroom format for quite some time. Thanks to immersing herself in the Iowa STEM Teacher Externship program from the Iowa Governor’s STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) Advisory Council, Smith’s traditional classroom format may have changed for good.

The teacher participated in a six-week “extern” program that works to provide educators with the opportunity to work side-by-side with industry professionals and bring examples of real-life applications of STEM to students in Iowa. It also works to create a lasting partnership between workplaces and local schools.

While teachers build new ways to show students the link between state academic standards and available jobs and skills needed by local workplaces, extern hosts find the help they need to complete significant projects that bring value to the organization.

The experience taught Smith that not only is the curriculum extremely important, but so too is making sure it’s taught in a way that is meaningful to the students beyond a letter grade.

“This externship has taught me the importance of incorporating soft skills and employability skills into my classroom lessons,” Smith said. “Content is important but not as important as being able to communicate effectively and be a good employee in their future careers.”

Smith worked for Jones County Conservation. During her externship, Smith created a variety of publications to be used as educational tools. The first project completed was an edible trails brochure that included information about 21 plants found on the trail that could be consumed by humans. Along with this project, QR code signs (two-dimensional barcodes) were designed to direct the public to more information on each plant. She also helped create a family bingo game that encourages the public to explore various sites around Jones County.

Another publication she assisted with consisted of lesson plans geared toward a partnership between teachers in the county and the conservationists to discover and document the variety of species found at conservation sites in the county.

Smith’s final project was checking and repairing the bluebird boxes found across the county along with updating the website, survey links and QR codes for the project.

“Our focus is providing teachers with hands-on experience that will enhance their classroom curriculum and highlight the skills required in a workplace setting,” said Jason Lang, who manages the Iowa STEM Teacher Externship Program. “The partnerships that have developed between businesses and schools throughout the state is a large factor in Iowa being a leader in STEM.”

Smith is excited that her students may discover career interests in areas they had not previously considered. “STEM courses help students explore careers that are at the forefront of their future,” she said. “We’ve had numerous students pursue careers in these fields after CHS, and many have been quite successful in their endeavors.”