As far as Randy Nyberg is concerned, getting teachers real world experience in local businesses is good for both sides.

Nyberg is the assistant vice president of information technology at Principal Financial Group Inc., a company that for the past three summers has been part of a teacher externship program. Through the program run by the Iowa Math and Science Education Partnership (IMSEP), K-12 teachers around the state can work six-week stints at local businesses to keep up with what’s happening with their subject matter in the real world.

In turn, they take that knowledge back to the classroom and share it with their students in an effort to attract more young people to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) careers. Last summer, 58 teachers participated in the program, which is accepting applications through at least the end of March for next summer’s externships.

The externship program was born out of a need to fill gaps between K-12 education and the needs of the working world, said IMSEP Director Jeff Weld, who is also the executive director of Gov. Terry Branstad’s STEM Advisory Council.

As the program prepares to embark on its fifth summer, the topic of education reform is a hot one in Iowa. In January, Branstad unveiled a proposal to pay teachers more and give them more opportunities for leadership positions. The proposal also coincides with a push to steer more students to careers in science, technology, engineering and math.

“The long-range view is really the key opportunity here,” Nyberg said. “We realize that for our business in the future, we are going to need employees who have great mathematical and technical skills. Business and industry has to be involved in supporting the education system, and providing resources to help them accomplish that mission. We’re very committed to that.”

Businesses can truly benefit their bottom lines by welcoming in externs, Weld said. The first year of trying to get businesses in the program was “like pulling teeth,” he said, in large part because of worries that the teachers would create extra work and take staff time away from normal duties, therefore costing the company money.

Post-externship evaluations showed the opposite to be true.

“We ask the businesses now to quantify what the dollar value of having this teacher is,” Weld said. “Those are astounding figures we’re seeing – anywhere from the tens of thousands to the hundreds of thousands of dollars in savings, or profits realized, or consultant fees not spent, or whatever – because this feature was in place.”

At Allen Hospital in Waterloo, a math teacher extern spent the summer analyzing patient transport to map out the most efficient routes. At Pella Corp., an extern saved the company more than $30,000 in consulting fees.

“We have it on authority again and again of these teachers doing this great insightful significant problem-solving for these companies,” Weld said.

The program has received funding from state economic development grants and is about to enter the final year of a three-year, $1.1 million grant from the National Science Foundation. After that grant runs out, Weld anticipates relying more on businesses to provide stipends for teachers to take the externships, which some participating businesses already do.

Principal hasn’t talked about future commitments to the program beyond this year, but Nyberg, for one, believes that businesses must share the responsibility to train the future workforce through programs such as this one.

“I think that if businesses and industry do not play a more active role in helping develop students (with) the skills and knowledge they need in business going forward, we won’t be successful globally,” he said. “I absolutely think it’s a very long-range commitment, and it has to be.”