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Why are local teachers embedding in St. Louis startups this summer?

Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio
Haliday Douglas and Travis Sheridan joined "St. Louis on the Air" to discuss the new Education Innovation Fellowship program.

When Nate Marschalk, the executive director of the local education innovation non-profit The Disruption Department, heard of the new Education Innovation Fellowship program being piloted by St. Louis’ Venture Café and St. Louis Public Schools, he was immediately against the idea.

This year, the paid fellowship will pair 15 St. Louis Public Schools teachers with startups and innovative companies in the hope of bridging the gap between education and industry.

Marschalk worried about the fellowship’s end goal.

“I thought it was a bad idea,” Marschalk said. “I thought it might end up being ‘oh, you have some teachers who may want to leave the classroom, here’s an opportunity to do that.’ Programs like that, I’m not in favor of. … but it is nothing like I thought it could end up being.”

Haliday Douglas, the director of talent strategy and management for St. Louis Public Schools, said nothing could be further from the point of the fellowship. Although the teachers spend the first four days of the week reporting to the company they are embedded with, they spend the last day of the week turning what they learn at the company into curriculum modules for their students.

“This is not a one-off,” Douglas said.

Travis Sheridan, the executive director of St. Louis’ Venture Café, said that this fellowship launched as an outgrowth of the successful Thursday night meet-ups in the Cortex district that draw over 500 people per week to engage in different educational programs and networking.

“We believe there is an opportunity to get more educators involved in the innovation space,” Sheridan said. “Our workforce is trained by our school teachers. It is that pipeline that will allow industry to thrive here in the region and throughout the nation. All too often, educators work within the educational system but they aren’t necessarily  influenced or working directly with industry. They’re trying to train the workforce without the knowledge of what industry needs.”

Douglas said that St. Louis Public Schools are a great test point for filling the gap between industry and education. While the fellowship, starting May 30, only has 15 participants this year, the hope is to grow it by four times next year — when the program will expand to include teachers outside of the St. Louis Public Schools system. Teachers receive a $5,000 stipend to participate in the program this summer — a sum raised by Venture Café, St. Louis Public Schools and the businesses involved in the fellowship.

A chemistry teacher, for example, may work at a biotech startup. A middle school principal may work with a startup looking to shape their leadership development program.

“There are a lot of transferable skill sets that if we look at them purely through the silos of education and purely through the silo of industry, you might not see the connection,” Sheridan said.

"I can't scale with the resources to do programming for every student but one teacher can influence anywhere from 30 to 150 kids and we're going to use that as our lever to make systemic change." — Travis Sheridan, executive director, Venture Café

While there are plenty of programs for students to learn STEM or STEAM skills, such as coding, there is little overlap for teachers themselves. That’s the gap the program seeks to close.

“I can’t scale with the resources to do programming for every student but one teacher can influence anywhere from 30 to 150 kids and we’re going to use that as our lever to make systemic change,” Sheridan said.

The fellowship program received 150 applications from teachers and those chosen showed ability to think innovatively and care about the direction of the region. There was also a component that looked at how teachers did quantitatively with the students. Teachers had to be in their second year of teaching or more.

“It is about shifting how systems behave,” Douglas said. “Shifting how industries like St. Louis Public Schools behave by embedding innovation and thought partnership in the way we do work.”

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region. 

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Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.