For nine years, Lesley Derringer worked in product management at Aisin U.S.A. Manufacturing in Seymour and loved her job.

She always had wanted to be a teacher, though, so she went back to school and earned her master’s degree in education while she was still working full time. Now, she teaches seventh-grade math at Seymour Middle School.

But on Wednesday, Derringer was at Aisin again. She wasn’t there to make doorframes or seat adjusters, even though she still had to wear protective eyeglasses and sleeves.

Derringer and two other Seymour Middle School teachers had the opportunity to spend the day learning about local career opportunities for students and the skills teachers can start helping those students develop now to be successful in the future.

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A total of five Jackson County teachers are participating in the Educator to Industry Externship program this summer.

Besides Derringer, the others are math teacher Jenni Hunnicutt and science teacher Stu Hackman from Seymour Middle School; engineering teacher Brandon Briner from Brownstown Central High School; and agriculture teacher Linda Begley from Crothersville High School.

Every day this week, the Seymour Middle School teachers visited a different local manufacturer or industry, including Aisin, Rose Acre Farms, Schneck Medical Center, Walmart Distribution Center and Kremers Urban Pharmaceuticals.

Briner will spend time at Valeo and Cummins Seymour Engine Plant in July, while Begley visited Marion-Kay Spices in Brownstown and Morgan Foods in Austin earlier this month.

This is the second year for the externship program, which is made possible through the EcO Regional Advanced Manufacturing Network and a Skill UP Indiana! grant through the Indiana Department of Workforce Development.

Spending the day at Aisin gave Derringer, Hunnicutt and Hackman plenty of ideas of how they can provide their students with a clearer understanding of career pathways in manufacturing.

“I wanted to participate to see what options are out there for our kids,” Derringer said. “Because I remember when I was in school, I had no idea, other than general professions — doctors, lawyers, teachers, nurses or maybe what your parents did.”

But not all students can or want to go to college for four or more years to land those jobs. Some want to work right out of high school.

“And that’s OK. There are trades. There are things they can do to make a good living without college,” Derringer said. “We as teachers should be able to educate students on what options are out there.”

The best way to be able to do that is not from a book or a website but from actually experiencing what different careers are like, she added.

“The earlier we can get them thinking about it, the longer they have to apply and learn about the opportunities that are available,” she said. “They need to know that you aren’t just a factory worker. You are a factory worker, and that’s important. No matter what you’re doing, you should take pride in it.”

The group took tours of Plant 1 and Plant 2 to observe Aisin employees performing their normal job duties, from running presses and assembling parts to machine maintenance and quality control.

Stephanie Weber, EcO regional director, manufacturing network, said the externships provide valuable and practical information to teachers.

The experience allowed them to see how science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, are used and applied in skilled trades so they will have answers when students ask why they have to learn something or when they will ever use it, Weber said.

Sarah Foist, a training specialist with Aisin, said the externship is great not only for the teachers but for the companies because it allows them to work closer with local educators to help prepare their future workforce.

“Their students are going to get older and graduate and need jobs. We want them to have an interest in manufacturing and know that Aisin is here and will train them for not just a job but a career,” she said. “We want to do everything we can to be involved in and support our community.”

The teachers also had the opportunity to complete hands-on training activities, or “dojos,” which are the same ones used by the company to train employees.

In one activity on standard work, each teacher had to follow instructions to build a model of a seat adjuster using Legos. By deciding to do the steps out of order or jump ahead to complete the task faster, they learned their product would be defective. That would mean they would have to start all over, which in manufacturing equals loss of production time and money.

After building the model with instructions, they then had to attempt to build it again using the same steps in the same order but by memory. And in the factory setting, they would have to build the parts in a certain amount of time.

It was a great exercise to show the importance of following instructions and the consequences of not doing a job right, which can be difficult to get across to students.

“They’ve been telling us what skills they need in their workers, detail-oriented, hand-eye coordination, organization skills,” Derringer said. “That’s lessons we can bring back to our classroom and figure out a way to incorporate it in how we teach.”

Another valuable thing they learned was “kaizen,” which is a Japanese business philosophy of continuous improvement in work practices and efficiency.

“It’s about how to make things better, how to work smarter not harder, and we can all learn from that,” Derringer said.

The externship also serves to provide teachers with connections to local employers for classroom visits and career advising and encourages partnerships between schools and industries.

Those connections often lead to opportunities for students, such as job shadowing, school-to-work experiences, internships and in some cases, jobs.

Derringer plans to use some of the information she learned to start a career club at SMS this year to give students more exposure to job opportunities.

She said she really enjoyed the externship experience and recommends it for other teachers as a resource.

“You learn so much,” she said. “And then you’re not just telling students something from a book. You’ve experienced it.”

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January Rutherford is a reporter for The (Seymour) Tribune. She can be reached at jrutherford@tribtown.com or 812-523-7069.