Birmingham high school teacher Doug Baltz wanted to give his students the best STEM learning experience possible, so he chose an innovative path: taking them out of the classroom entirely and into real-world externships.
The students in Baltz's STEMx Research and Design course at Ernest W. Seaholm High School have now done externships with mobility companies including General Motors and auto battery manufacturer A123 Systems. That's in addition to numerous real-life experiences in other industries at organizations ranging from Beaumont Hospital to Wayne State University to UPS.
The specific projects and tasks students participate in vary. The length of the externship can range from a one-and-done visit to an extended project conducted over multiple weeks. And the externships may engage a single student or the whole class. But the overarching goal is the same: to give students a taste of various STEM careers by collaborating with professionals and working with their data to do real-life R&D projects.
Baltz originally hatched the idea for the externship program in 2013. As an adjunct lecturer at Oakland University, he piloted the concept through an externship at the university's Industrial and Systems Engineering department. Baltz says the externship opportunity became the "pillar" of his STEMx Research and Design course, and the concept has taken off from there to involve collaborations with numerous other area employers.
Baltz sees externships as a way to close both the education sector's academic achievement gap and the skills gap employers often grapple with in trying to fill jobs. Baltz says there's an opportunity gap for students as well, which is the "glue" for both the skills and academic gaps.
"Students all around the country, not just here in Michigan, don't have the opportunity to see what's out there and get immersed into an experience that relates to their academics," he says. "When you can do that, I think the academics and skills go hand in hand. In underrepresented sectors across our country, that opportunity gap is getting very, very wide."
Baltz and his "data mentors," as he describes the externship hosts he works with, have created some remarkable opportunities for his students. In the mobility sector, they recently had the opportunity to collaborate with General Motors and the Massachusetts-based nonprofit Oceans of Data Institute (ODI) in studying urban mobility in emergency evacuation systems, as well as bike sharing systems' role in urban mobility.
The students worked with GM staff to draw conclusions from their data, which will be used in new urban mobility curriculum modules that ODI will release for use in classrooms nationwide next year.
"Why do we have certain rideshare programs in Detroit and why are they different from other ones in New York or other places in the country?" Baltz says. "Allowing students to analyze that was very interesting. There's very different inferences they can make on what are the differences and what are the shortfalls."
Baltz has noted some outstanding outcomes for students who've participated in externship experiences. Some have seen their externships turn into internships. Others have been recruited by Tesla and other major auto companies. Baltz says he's been particularly pleased to see more of his female students go into systems engineering careers.
The STEAM acronym is generally understood to stand for science, technology, engineering, arts, and math. But Baltz proposes an alternate definition: strategies that engage all minds, including young ones and those in industry.
"It's a symbiotic relationship," he says. "If we could fill that pipeline, we've got students out there that could help push forward some of the auto industry's mobility initiatives."
They also lend a perspective that industry leaders seem to find refreshing. Baltz recalls when he and several of his students had the opportunity to present at the 2019 Center for Advanced Automotive Technology conference at Macomb Community College. During the presentation, one of the students noted that Baltz's course didn't focus on problem-solving so much as "problem-identifying."
Baltz noticed that leaders from the auto industry and others in the room "really perked their ears up" at the student's insight.
"They said, 'Whoa, that's interesting,'" he says. "It's a little different twist on those critical thinking skills."