By Callie Sharkey
National STEM Day may be coming up on Thursday, Nov. 8, but some individuals find ways to celebrate and grow their knowledge of science, technology, engineering and mathematics throughout the year. That was the case this past summer for local teacher Sean Streed of Wellington Landings Middle School.
While students enjoyed time off from school, Streed spent the month of July embracing an externship with NextEra Energy’s Reliability Assurance Center Lab through Florida Power & Light.
Since 2009, Streed has taught all aspects of science at Wellington Landings, ranging from biology to astronomy. While he is always exploring new avenues, such as his trailblazing lessons using Chromebooks and a Smart whiteboard, this summer was his first opportunity to explore a paid externship.
Such work-study experiences allow teachers a fresh perspective on answering the indominable student question, “When am I going to use this in the real world?” by providing educators with real-world applications and first-hand knowledge.
After learning of the program at the Palm Beach County School District’s annual Science Symposium, Streed was interested, but the program was offered only to high school teachers. This was the first year that middle school teachers were admitted, and he was quick to apply.
He is always looking for new ways to connect with his students.
“I don’t want to be stuck handing out worksheets just because that’s how things have been done for 20 years,” Streed said, explaining that new technology is just the way to do it.
Welcomed into his externship like any other employee, including orientations and safety trainings, Streed was stunned by the acceptance he felt. “They showed me everything. It was like a tidal wave trying to grasp it all. It was lots of fun, and they were incredibly knowledgeable,” he said.
For an entire month, he showed up for work in FPL gear from his hat to safety gloves to protective boots. He was able to work directly with components in need of repair, in addition to experiencing time in the field. Engineers took him from the Flagler office all the way to Miami-Dade County, exploring the power grid and letting Streed see how the entire powering process works from start to finish.
Watching the FPL crew’s problem-solving skills was perhaps the most impactful part of the externship for him, Streed explained.
He witnessed first-hand how clear communication between workers in the field relayed information, in many cases allowing for fixes to be made remotely.
Streed was impressed by how technicians could identify complex problems by simply looking at a board of lights or interpreting a 2 hertz change, and in turn, address significant power outages immediately. Sometimes answers were simply found by, well, thinking through the problem.
Streed’s middle school science classes will never be the same as he integrates new strategies to encourage his students to think in broader terms. He wants them to “work outside the box” with brain teasers and riddles instead of just worksheets and formulas.
“[Students] know how to do a lot, but teaching them how to think is different,” Streed said, adding that when watching the team at FPL in action, he realized, “These people know how to think.”
He speaks about his summer experiences often while in class. “Career readiness is important,” Streed said.
Showing his students that there are well-paying jobs out there that do not require a four-year degree is surprising to some, and helping them better understand the many options available will open their futures to more STEM-related opportunities.
Since the program’s inception, FPL has hosted some participants each summer. Over the past four years, 10 educators expanded their knowledge through the help of this unique training.
Maureen Wilt is one of the externship’s committee co-chairs and the senior education program manager for FPL. “It’s very much about doing work, not just attending meetings,” she said.
Competition for limited program spots means not every teacher that applies is accepted the first time. The STEM externship program is the only one of its kind in Florida, and businesses get the final say in who participates at their location.
Wilt explained how educators “connect what they are teaching to the world of work,” emphasizing how important it is to convey to students that teamwork is essential for success in the real world.
STEM initiatives reach back many years, but the STEM externship program here in Palm Beach County is only in its fourth year. Since 2015, 41 teachers benefited from this program, which encourages partnerships with local businesses while building strong linkages between their curriculum and practical applications.
“We are excited to continue to grow the STEM externship program and are always looking for more businesses to participate in the program,” said Julia Mate, the school district’s K-12 STEM program planner.
This summer, 11 different companies hosted a total of 14 externs.
Streed feels that getting hands-on experience is not always easy for teachers who do not spend time out in the work force before stepping into the classroom. He recommends the STEM externship program as a great tool for teachers to learn and become more inspired in creating lesson plans. “It is a great opportunity. It is more than concepts — it’s working with circuit boards and soldering,” he said.
The Palm Beach County STEM Council opens applications for paid summer externships to middle and high school teachers, with the deadline for submissions in February. To learn more about externships and other STEM programs, visit www.palmbeachschools.org/stem/teacherstudentopps or contact Mate at firstname.lastname@example.org.