This fall, when students ask Chuck Perez and Kavous Mazaheri why learning math is relevant to their success in life, the teachers will know exactly what to say.
That's because both teachers are spending eight weeks this summer working side-by-side with engineers, technicians and lab researchers who eat and sleep math and science, with the express goal of giving instructors hands-on experience that they can take back to their classrooms.
More than 150 Bay Area teachers have been placed in 43 high-tech organizations, including Cisco, Dow Chemical, Intel and Lockheed Martin, as well as Stanford and UC Berkeley, through the Industry Initiatives for Science and Math Education (IISME) program.
Perez said that when sixth-graders first come into his classroom at Rancho Medanos Junior High School in Pittsburg, they aren't always excited about learning math.
"A lot of times, students will say, 'What good is this?'" he said.
Now, he's armed with a lesson plan he developed at Dow Chemical in Pittsburg that will help him demonstrate why math is important. He will be able to explain how Dow develops products for farmers who grow the food students eat, then have them simulate the work of process control operators who monitor the temperature, pressure and flow rates of liquids that pass through pipes, pumps and tanks at the plant.
Students will learn how to read charts and figure out what actions to take if the temperature or pressure get too high or low, or if the flow is too slow or fast. Although this work is critical in manufacturing plants such as Dow, Perez said it's a job most students don't even know exists.
Mazaheri, who is at UC Berkeley, plans to turn his Algebra I classroom at Pinole Valley High School into a makeshift science lab, where students will measure and graph temperature and time while doing experiments.
"I've been seeing students not prepared in geometry and precalculus," he said. "My plan is to teach Algebra I completely differently. If you walk into my classroom, you're going to be confused about if it is a chemistry lab or a physics lab or a math class. I'm going to use experimental algebra."
Curriculum developed through the program is shared free on the IISME community website, which includes 574 lessons that have been viewed by more than 10,000 visitors from 105 countries and downloaded 18,000 times since the site was launched in 2008, according to spokeswoman Tisha Bacigalupi.
Randy Fischback, public and government affairs director for Dow, said the company has participated in the fellowship program for more than a decade. Teachers, he said, help with projects while working alongside mentors, and they also learn about the kinds of products and jobs the company provides, then pass that information on to their students.
Kate Spohr, who coordinates education and outreach for the Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center at UC Berkeley, said teacher fellows at the university work in labs and analyze data. This summer, she said, teachers are working in nanoscience, electrical engineering, computer science, molecular biology, biochemistry and materials science.
The university encourages teachers to return for a second year, after they have piloted their lessons, so they can refine them, she said. Those who pursue the fellowships are lifelong learners who are curious and eager to share new skills and concepts with students, she said.
"They're the top of the profession -- better trained and constantly pursuing ways to improve their skills," she said. "It's really exciting working with these people. They're inspiring."