Few buzzwords in education are more popular these days than “relevance.” Students demand it. Schools struggle to convey it. Employers expect graduates who understand it.

Teachers from schools across North Carolina – including several with the North Carolina New Schools Project (NCNSP) – are getting valuable lessons in relevance themselves this summer though first-hand experience in the “real world” of math and science.

Through exposure to working in science labs, day-to-day operations of big-league employers and the inner workings of public service organizations, teachers are gaining perspective in how to help students bridge the gap between the classroom and the workplace. They’re using what they’re learning, along with the connections they’re making with experts in their fields, to develop lessons to engage their own students and to share with other teachers and schools.

Kirk Kennedy has spent nearly 20 years teaching high school biology in rural Duplin County, where his students are more likely to associate agriculture with driving a tractor than with the science behind genetically modified crops. For two weeks this summer, Kennedy worked beside scientists at BASF in Research Triangle Park. One week he was seeing biotechnology in action; the next it was agriscience.

“My students can have an opportunity for jobs like these,” said Kennedy, who teaches at East Duplin High School. “They don’t know about them. I’ve lived in Duplin County for 41 years, and when I’ve seen signs marking fields, I didn’t realize I was looking at genetically modified crops.”

As one of three teachers from NCNSP partner schools with externships through the Kenan Fellows Program for Curriculum and Leadership Development at N.C. State University, Kennedy also has gained from opportunities to network with other teachers.

“I’m able to meet other educators from across North Carolina who share the same passion,” he said. “The big thing about Kenan Fellows is developing a network with other teachers and professionals, like the scientists at BASF.”

Sean McAdams, a research manager at BASF Plant Science who worked with Kennedy, said the externship was productive for everyone involved.

“Kirk is genuinely enthusiastic and eager to use the information he gained from the visit,” McAdams said. “He’s intelligent, passionate about science education and is committed to being an effective teacher. I can speak for many of the 20-plus scientists that he met with when I say that we would welcome the opportunity to participate in the program again. It allows us to contribute to science education in our community and share the chemistry that we create at BASF.”

Through NCNSP’s partnership with the Kenan Fellows program, the three teachers each represent schools with a particular focus in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math): health and life sciences, biotechnology and agriscience, and energy and sustainability. They will share the project-based lessons they’re developing this summer with other schools that are partners with NCNSP.

For Carrie Horton, who teaches English at Wake County’s N.C. State University STEM Early College High School, spending two weeks at Progress Energy in downtown Raleigh has given her good ideas for helping her students connect skills needed for communication to the school’s broader focus on the theme of energy and sustainability.

Horton worked in a department of the utility focused on energy conservation and alternative energy, which she said is a good fit for the project-based lesson she’s developing that will include a public awareness and marketing campaign students will develop to promote residential energy conservation and efficiency.

“Working in a STEM school has really changed the way I teach,” Horton said. “It’s changed the way I think about how all the subjects are connected.”

At Progress Energy, Horton said, she’s gotten valuable perspective on those connections and on how the kinds of skills she teaches are applied. “They must know how to write to different audiences. They have to do reports on compliance. They must understand policy and how policy really drives things. They need to be able to communicate well,” she added.

Vance Kite is developing a project-based unit in public health at his school, City of Medicine Academy in Durham, as part of an externship at N.C. Prevention Partners, a Chapel Hill-based nonprofit focused on public health issues.

“The biggest benefit is the resources that I can now draw on,” Kite said. “I made really good connections with people who can help throughout the year. And, from an instructional stand point, it helped define what should be in the course.”

The experience also gave him a concrete perspective on the kinds of skills seen as critical for high school graduates, such as the importance of writing, quality of presentations, the importance of being able to work collaboratively on a team, and the ability to form connections and networks.

Kelly Estes, who taught earth science last year at South Granville High School of Health and Life Sciences, is seeing how science is applied at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) in RTP during a six-week externship.

“It’s been really awesome,” Estes said. “I’m getting a good understanding of what basic research is and what NIEHS offers that I can take back to classroom and translate for my students.

“Hopefully that will help make the content relevant to them; to be able to learn about what’s going on in our science world right now,” she said. “I want to make my kids excited about science. There are so many different career paths they can follow.”

Other teachers from NCNSP partner schools participating in externships this summer:

Leigh Ciancanelli, Wake N.C. State STEM Early College High School, at ABB, also in partnership with the Professional Engineers of North Carolina; and Erin Cyr, Early College EAST, Havelock, at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland, through an Army educational outreach program called Gains in the Education of Math and Science.

The North Carolina New Schools Project is a statewide public-private partnership that administers the early college high school initiative in cooperation with the State Board of Education and the N.C. Department of Public Instruction.