Blue Valley CTE teachers’ Externship opportunities beneficial for staff and students

When the 2021-22 school year ended in May, many teachers welcomed the break as a time to unwind and refresh in preparation for students’ return in August. Blue Valley teacher Eric Kessler made time to relax, but first, he had another task: conducting research on planaria. 


Kessler, bioscience teacher at Blue Valley’s Center for Advanced Professional Studies (CAPS), is one Blue Valley teacher who participated in this year’s externship program. 


The program, offered to Career and Technical Education teachers, hosted five educators this year — Kessler, Julia Boge, Laura Benscheidt, Cody Parks and Nicole Acheson. 


Externships are offered nationally in school districts and provide an opportunity for teachers to work alongside industry professionals to learn best practices. They can then relay that knowledge to students and implement it in their classrooms. 


“Our teachers do a good job at staying on top of industry standards and what’s happening out there. But it’s really powerful for a teacher to be there doing the work beside the people in a certain profession, so they have a strong understanding of what the work entails,” said Adam Wessel, Blue Valley’s Career Ready Programs director. 


Blue Valley’s externship program, funded by the federal Carl Perkins grant, pays the teachers participating in the program. 


Kessler spent his externship at the Stower’s Institute for Medical Research, a biomedical research organization headquartered in Kansas City, Mo. Since the organization’s inception, Stower’s has shown interest in becoming more involved in education. Kessler has been helping to build those connections. 


Kessler chose to participate in the externship program as he saw it as an opportunity to gain new skills, make connections and network. 


The opportunity to work with the Stower’s Institute presented itself after one of Kessler’s students studied research planaria with the help of Stower’s. 


Kessler’s student, Aniela Cabrera, began working with Stower's during the 2021-22 school year. Once the externship program was announced, Kessler wondered if the organization would allow him to work in the lab over the summer. 


During Kessler’s two weeks at Stower’s, he learned two different scientific processes: In Situ hybridization and RNAi. 


In Situ hybridization is a process used to visualize gene expression in the cells of an organism. The protocol is used on research planaria because of the flatworm’s regenerative abilities. 


“We know there are genes these planaria share with humans, and if there’s a way we can understand how it so readily can regenerate itself, maybe there are ways we can coax tissues and cells in humans that have damaged tissue,” Kessler said. 


Kessler and Stower’s worked together to make the hybridization process, which takes three to four days, shorter for high school students. 


The RNAi protocol, a process used for knocking out genes, is one Kessler hopes to incorporate this year into his CAPS research class. 


“I think taking part in an externship will help any teacher at whatever stage they’re at in their career in making what they are teaching more real for students,” Kessler said. “On top of that, you end up having a connection with an expert in the community.”


Boge, foundations of medicine teacher at CAPS, spent her externship with Johnson County Mental Health Center so she could learn more about what is occurring within the county’s health care realm. 


During her month externship with Johnson County Mental Health, Boge learned about state-level resources, worked with prevention coordinators and joined several coalition meetings. Boge and a mental health center employee collected opioid misuse data and presented the report during a coalition meeting. 


Boge will now be able to go back to her students and explain what a real-life prevention coordinator’s work looks like in the community and how they are analyzing data. 


“I think it’s important to know where our students are going or where they can go,” Boge said. “I think we talk a lot to our students about ‘When will I use this?’ in real life, and I do think it’s important for us to know the variety of opportunities that are there and some creative ways that students can merge their passions with career opportunities.”