"When am I ever going to need this?" Iowa math and science teachers hear this question a lot. Maybe it's blurted out while the class is balancing chemical equations, or whispered between friends solving for x.

Don't you wish you were in the room to help answer that question? "Why, industry saves huge money by figuring out how to use the bare minimum of raw materials to get the most product," you might say, adding, "That's how National Gypsum over in Fort Dodge makes drywall."

But you have your own day job, so teachers are on their own to answer that question. Most know as much about industry as business people know about schooling. Neither spends enough time in the world of the other. That's where "Real World Externships for Teachers of Math and Science" comes in. Teachers get to see how their subjects are applied at work, right here in the companies of Iowa.

When the state's public universities joined forces in 2008 to create the Iowa Mathematics and Science Education Partnership (IMSEP), one of the top priorities was to help teachers bring their subjects up to 21st-century applications along with a heavy dose of career awareness. Students don't know about the opportunities that exist right in their own hometowns.

This challenge calls for an unprecedented alliance of business and education, because neither group can reform science and math education alone. In the program's first year, several Iowa companies and agencies partnered with IMSEP to invite 10 teachers from across the state into summer jobs. Each added value to business operations while gaining valuable insights into the uses of math and science at work. Kemin Industries Inc., Pella Corp., Clipper Windpower, Hagie Manufacturing Co., Struxture Architects, Allen Memorial Hospital, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, and the county conservation boards of Polk and Black Hawk counties all put math and science teachers to work. Now back at school, these teachers are keeping it real.

Math class at Prairie High School in Cedar Rapids last fall involved student teams using geometric modeling to configure the most efficient ways for loading a truck trailer with turbine parts, just as the teacher was charged to do last summer at Clipper Windpower.

Struxture Architects reported, "Our extern did a lot of research and created an amazing database that we had wanted to do for several years but had not found the time."

IMSEP managers plan to expand the program to every Iowa community that seeks to unify economic development and education reform through this innovative public-private alliance. Interested parties can learn more about Real World Externships at www.iowamathscience.org/externships.

Jeffrey Weld is an associate professor at the University of Northern Iowa and the director of the Iowa Mathematics and Science Education Partnership.