OLEAN — A group of educators more accustomed to a classroom setting with white boards, textbooks and powerpoints received a first-hand experience this week in what being machinist, welder, engineer, chemist or plant foreman is all about.
No, they aren’t planning to change careers, but they did learn about the dozens of different career opportunities are available for their students without having to move out of the Southern Tier.
Organized through Dream It Do It of Western New York (DIDI), the annual Summer Teacher Experience week saw about 20 educators who teach everything from technology to social studies to elementary classes tour local industrial and educational facilities from across the region.
Over the course of five days and hundreds of miles traveled, the educators became more familiar with the array of job options they can bring back to their classrooms to promote science, technology, engineering, arts and math (STEAM) education this fall.
“I think this week went very well. We had a terrific group of teachers from so many different schools,” said Evelyn Sabina, DIDI director. “They were all willing to travel all over to find career opportunities for their students and learn about what is happening in our area.”
With a massive population of baby boomers already retired and millions more about to, the national push is to compel kids toward STEAM studies in hopes of filling those often high-paying vacancies.
Sabina said it’s sometimes a struggle to make students aware of the career options right in their backyards. But for that to work, the teachers and, in turn, school administration must become aware first.
“What I find works so well with this program is when we have teachers who have done this before working with teachers who are coming for the first time,” she said. “The blend is excellent because they learn from each other.”
Larry Cook, a tech teacher at Pioneer Central School, was taking part in the experience week for the ninth time. He said there are more careers at the companies they toured than only manufacturing something on the factory floor, and it’s up to the teachers to bring what they’ve learned back to the schools to enrich the students and administrators about the opportunities.
“I think one of our big struggles is we can’t get them to see what we see,” he said. “I know it, but we need to find a way to show the right people who make the decisions that this is a problem.”
Cook said the different companies they visited not only have job openings but are actively looking for local graduates to fill those rolls. He said many are also expanding with automation and robots as well as paying closer attention to employees’ wellbeing.
“It’s been cool as a teacher to keep coming back and going to some of these places,” he added.
This week, members of the group toured Napoleon Engineering Services, Scott Rotary Seals, SolEpoxy, the Challenger Learning Center, Cummings Engine Plant, Salamanca High School’s STEAM Center, Jamestown Community College, Cutco, Keystone Tool & Die, Great Lakes Cheese, Mazza Mechanical and Pierce Steel, Ljungstrom, ASK Chemicals, Fitzpatrick & Weller and Ontario Knife.
“I think the teachers who have been here before were amazed with all of the advanced automation, robots and improvements in all of manufacturers over the past few years,” Sabina said. “We hadn’t toured recently, so they were just so impressed with what’s happening with all of the companies and excited for their students and the future of our communities.”
As the years have gone on, teachers have suggested ideas for how to change or improve the week next time. Sabina said her favorite part of the program is the ideas that come from the teachers. Some of this year’s attendees suggesting bringing some of their students along on the tours and thanking the area’s manufacturers in person rather than only sending out thank you notes.
Adam Steighner, a biology teacher from Portville, was attending the experience week for the first time. He said he didn’t realize how many high-paying, high-tech jobs were available in the area, and many of them are making things that millions of people around the world use every day — or even rocketed into space.
“Not many people know about it, and we have to get the word out,” he said. “They’re looking for kids, and not necessarily kids who want to go to college. A lot of these companies do training right there on the job, and they have good incomes and good lives.”
As a biology teacher, Steighner said it’s important to see the companies offering careers in more than strictly manufacturing-related fields, such as healthcare.
“I am definitely bringing by kids this year, even my bio kids, on some of the tours they’re offering,” he added. “We need kids to do these jobs, and the companies are super important.”