By Caitlin Gibson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 18, 2010; LZ01
Tammy Svitek crouched beside a row of lush raspberry bushes in the hazy morning sunshine, sweat dampening her forehead as she nudged leaves aside to hunt for berries. It was the first time that the 25-year-old seventh-grade English teacher had worked on a farm. Beside her, Jean Scarborough, a seventh-grade science teacher, was helping her fill their bucket. A third teacher -- Helen Wadkins, who has taught middle school and high school students for more than 20 years -- chatted nearby with Doug Fabbioli, the boisterous owner of the vineyard.
Thursday was the first of four days that the three teachers would spend at Fabbioli Cellars, a sprawling vineyard off Limestone School Road in Loudoun County. They are there as part of the George Washington University Teachers in Industry Project -- a program that has paired 16 middle and high school teachers from Loudoun public schools with seven prominent local businesses for three-week, full-time internships this summer. The goal: to strengthen science, technology, engineering and mathematics education in the classroom by allowing teachers to apply real-world experience to their daily lessons. Over two four-day rotations at various work sites, the teachers will get a hands-on, behind-the-scenes look at professions including emergency medicine, airport management and creating a perfect Cabernet Franc.
The idea emerged from a group of 40 Loudoun business and education leaders who were convened by the Loudoun Economic Development Commission in 2008 to address the issue of impending workforce shortages resulting from the retirement of baby boomers, and how best to prepare students for the 21st-century workforce, said Paula Harper, executive director of program development at GWU.
"We asked the business leaders, if we want Loudoun to continue to be as successful and cutting edge, how can we really start working together to tackle this problem?" she said. "The business community got behind it immediately."
The program was launched last year with seven teacher-interns, three of whom returned this summer as mentors. Harper said she hopes the project, which is funded by grants and corporate donations, will ultimately be institutionalized in Loudoun. "We'd like it to be something that runs every year, and to increase the number of interns that we host every summer," she said.
Janet Schiavone, a mentor with the program and a faculty member with GWU's Graduate School of Education and Human Development, said the program is significant for teachers. "I've had the most success with my students when I can tell them exactly how they're going to use their knowledge later," she said. "Kids will ask you, 'Why do I need to know this?' And you have to have an answer."
That is why Svitek, a former graduate student of Schiavone's, said she joined the program.
"I don't have any work experiences outside the classroom," she said. "It's hard to give an authentic answer when you don't really know. I'm hoping this will make my students' experience in my class more meaningful, because now I'll know."
At the end of their internships, the teachers will review what they have learned and think about engaging ways to incorporate their newfound knowledge into classroom activities. They will discuss the skills used in the careers they have observed and talk about how to apply them to a curriculum that will get students excited about their futures.
The host businesses also hope to benefit from the program. At the introductory meeting in the winery's tasting room, Fabbioli stood before the three teachers and acknowledged his agenda: "I want to hopefully get kids to want to do this work," he said. The other six participating businesses are larger and more high-tech; Fabbioli said it was also important to represent the rural side of Loudoun, which he wants to see become more relevant in the school system.
"The land isn't just here to build houses. I want kids to appreciate the work that we're doing and want to be part of it," he said.
Fabbioli, who spent 10 years learning about wine in the cellars of the Buena Vista Carneros winery in Sonoma, Calif., before establishing his vineyard in Loudoun, told the teachers that winemaking "is where science and art come together." The business involves a little bit of everything: local economics, marketing, chemistry, artistry, biology and horticulture.
"I wouldn't call myself a scientist," he said. "But I use science all the time."
During the afternoon, the three teachers were taught how to measure the sugar content and balance the pH of crushed elderberries, which Fabbioli planned to use to make elderberry juice, a new experiment at the winery. The activity involved not only chemistry but also a larger lesson about when to cut one's losses and move on: Fabbioli ultimately decided that he wasn't satisfied with the juice and didn't want to pursue the product. The teachers, Schiavone said, were struck by this.
"I don't know that we ever teach kids how to fail and how to continue from that point," she said.
They brainstormed about how to apply what they'd done to a lesson plan for their classes -- maybe teaching students to measure the sugar level of soda to determine the possible damage to tooth enamel -- but they also discussed the larger themes they had observed during the day. Fabbioli had offered several stories about local farmers helping and supporting each other, which also moved the teachers.
"Students are so competitive with one another," Wadkins said. "Collaborative learning is so important."