RALEIGH — Industrial engineer Greg Stolze is a career-changer on the frontier of North Carolina’s efforts to update its education system for an economy that squeezes wealth out of knowledge rather than producing furniture or textiles.
A state that recognized the growth opportunities of 1950s technologies by creating the Research Triangle Park is increasing the classroom focus on science, technology, engineering and math — the so-called STEM fields. The goal is building a workforce with the training needed for high-wage, high-demand careers.
But one of the major barriers is finding enough teachers.
Enter a program attracting mid-career professionals like Stolze, who started college wanting to be a teacher but converted to engineering during the early-1980s recession because those jobs were available and paid better. With his two sons done with college and on their own, he decided his work honing the efficiency of plant operations and product distribution wasn’t really that interesting.
“When I looked at the things that I really felt good about in my role as a plant engineer or as a plant manager, the things that I liked to do was working with employees and teaching them and working with them,” said Stolze, 52, of Salisbury. “I thought: ‘You know what? Teaching engineering and science is really what would make me a lot happier today.’”
Fifteen years ago Stolze’s wife switched from running daycare centers in California to teaching, and it involved two years of school, unpaid student teaching, and sacrificing thousands of dollars in tuition and lost wages, he said. Doing that wasn’t appealing.
Then he learned about a no-cost alternate route that combines intensive, school-based preparation with online learning.
The first year of the N.C. STEM Teacher Education Program is providing hands-on training at high schools in Hudson, Fayetteville, Durham and Goldsboro to candidates preparing for teaching jobs next fall.
Candidates are paired with experienced teachers during 10-month classroom apprenticeships in which they spend about 18 hours a week learning the job. Candidates also complete four online courses through a division of the Harvard graduate education school. Their training costs are paid, candidates receive a $2,500 stipend, and Stolze and others have the time to work part-time as they wind down their previous careers.
The goal is producing 48 STEM teachers a year, primarily in districts with the highest need.
“What I bring that a lot of other teaching professionals don’t is real-world, industry experience in engineering and applied science,” Stolze said. As an engineering student, “I understood the science theory and the math theory a lot better when I saw the application for it. I think most students learn better that way.”
The alternative teacher education program is administered by the non-profit North Carolina New Schools, one of 30 groups nationwide awarded five-year grants from the U.S Education Department to train non-education graduates for the classroom. North Carolina is focusing the funding in 20 high schools, each focused on a set of STEM skills tied to the economic development needs of the region like biotechnology, aerospace, energy, health sciences or agricultural science.
While the Public Schools of Robeson County don’t have a designated STEM high school, STEM initiatives are being incorporated into the school curriculum at all levels.
STEM initiatives also are getting a boost with some of the $400 million in federal Race to the Top grants over four years. Nearly every state that won the extra Education Department funding included plans to improve education in the STEM subjects. The push to promote technical knowledge — which was inspired and fed for generations by the space race and NASA — is also being heavily pushed in Ohio, Texas, Tennessee, Massachusetts and Iowa.
The spreading focus on science and math was credited this summer for boosting the number of U.S. high school students graduating last spring scored by the ACT exam as ready for college-level work. The percentage earning ACT scores indicating readiness for college in science has increased from 28 percent to 31 percent nationally since 2009, and in math from 42 percent to 46 percent.
North Carolina’s STEM re-training program is accelerating the pipeline of tech-savvy teachers around the state while emphasizing that the academic disciplines interact, for example that math is central in science and technology development, said Rebecca Payne, who coordinates the state’s STEM programs for the Department of Public Instruction.
“We can help students see how one area applies to another area,” Payne said.
The addition of four more participating schools next year in Tarboro, Jamestown, Albemarle and Henderson will open slots to 40 teachers-in-training.
Interested applicants can find additional information and materials online at http://ncnewschools.org/. The group is holding online, hour-long information sessions at noon on Dec. 14 and Jan. 9. The application deadline is Jan. 15.
Emery Dalesio can be reached at http://twitter.com/emerydalesio