PATON (AP) — Andy Peterson, an industrial technology manufacturing teacher at Southeast Valley Middle School in Burnside, is excited to get back to school in the middle of July — even after he sacrificed his summer off.
That’s because he can’t wait to bring back everything he’s learning during his externship at John Deere’s Paton factory in Greene County to his shop class.
“I really want to plant seeds about ideas of what they can do,” Peterson told The Fort Dodge Messenger in the factory that manufactures row crop planters and other equipment.
It’s going to take a lot of seeds to undo what they say is damage caused by an overemphasis on college preparation for a path not suitable for everyone, according to Peterson.
“In a lot of cases, we showed kids that working in trades is a dark, evil, disgusting, hard kind of reality,” he said. “And it’s just not like that.”
John Deere is one of many companies working with more than 80 teachers this summer as part of the Iowa STEM Teacher Externships program, launched by the Governor’s STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) Advisory Council.
The program aims to help teachers recognize the jobs of the future and educate their students in the classroom on the possibilities.
“Middle school kids don’t understand what people do for a living,” Peterson said, a concept that’s difficult to explain to students who have only known lessons and tests.
He’s hoping his real experience and connections can bring in others who they’ll listen to — even if they don’t listen to him.
“Since I’m a shop teacher, there’s something every 10 minutes here I could work into a lesson,” he said.
In that way, his goal through the program is to connect kids to people in “real world jobs.”
With perhaps an overstimulation of social media and technology at their fingertips, videos on the classroom TV no longer cut it.
The situation, as it stands, isn’t cutting it for John Deere either, which is struggling to fill manufacturing positions on the factory floor as unemployment sits below 3% in most of Iowa, even with good pay and benefits offered.
“There’s 3 million manufacturing jobs that nobody wants,” said factory manager Katie Ehrke. “We feel that.”
So the partnership is a win-win for factories and educators alike. Manufacturers like John Deere get an indirect head start in recruitment for the workers they need, and teachers get the opportunity to illuminate their mechanically-inclined students in a way they can be happy in their career without the investment of a college degree.
And as rural towns continue to depopulate, a pinch that rural school districts feel as falling enrollments continue to force district mergers, keeping students who are the right fit for such positions in Iowa before they head to another city for college may be helpful.
“I think it’s a key to keeping them here before college,” Peterson said of education in trades and manufacturing career paths for students.
“You better not write that kid off,” Ehrke said, if they aren’t getting the best grades in academic subjects but show a clear ability to excel in the more hands-on forms of life. “You better not teach that kid that if you were to go into some job where you work with your hands, that you’re going to be a loser.”
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Their factory employees are a family, she said.
“Who wouldn’t want that for their child? Especially if it’s something that’s aligned with what your kid’s raw interests are,” she said.
“We need people who can use a tape measurer and work with their hands,” added Peterson.
Ironically, Peterson hated school himself when he graduated, going straight into manufacturing. That was before the early ‘80s, when he said open manufacturing positions were hard to come by.
After that, he went into the military, where he discovered his talent for teaching.
“I would always be told to train others,” he said.
So he went to college to become a teacher, eventually picking shop as the subject.
“Because that’s what people want to take,” he jokes.
In the 25 years since Peterson last worked in manufacturing, before joining the military and eventually becoming a teacher, he says the field has changed significantly. The biggest change has been from technology connectivity.
“I didn’t know engineers in Paton are working with engineers in other countries,” he said. “That didn’t happen too much 25 years ago.”
Now, he takes his role as a teacher seriously.
“I absolutely believe God wants me to teach,” he said.
“We always ask (our employees) what influenced them,” said Ehrke on the factory floor. “It’s always one person.”
That person is usually a teacher or family member, she explained.
Peterson takes the responsibility of being “the one” seriously, saying it puts a weight on his shoulders.
“Who did I not talk to? Did I make the effort with every student that I should have?” he asks himself.
But this August, with real world experience from a factory with an international footprint, he knows he’ll be better equipped to be the one teacher who can make a difference in a student’s life.