SALISBURY — When industrial engineer Greg Stolze started college at Iowa State University, he planned to be a science teacher.
But that changed quickly.
“I had a very insightful academic advisor in college that sat down with me from the start and told me there was no demand for teachers,” he said.
The nail in the coffin came when Stolze, 52, realized engineers can earn triple the salary of teachers.
“I said ‘How do I change,’” he said. “It was really just an opportunity and a financial decision at that time.
Stolze said he’s never regretted the decision because it allowed him a comfortable income to provide for his family.
“I’ve enjoyed the work that I’ve done, I’ve learned a lot,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to do it any differently.”
But Stolze is getting a second chance to become a teacher through the North Carolina STEM Teacher Education Program.
Administered by the non-profit organization North Carolina New Schools, the program provides lateral entry teacher certification to mid-career professionals and recent college graduates interested in teaching science, technology, engineering or math.
Stolze has been working as an industrial engineer for more than 30 years. Twenty-eight of those years were spent at Buckner Manufacturing, where he moved up through the ranks to a plant management position.
“I found that I really enjoyed the engaging projects and training a lot more than the management piece, it just wasn’t all that fulfilling,” he said.
Stolze and his wife, Julie, moved to Salisbury several years ago when he landed a job running the brick plants for Boral Bricks. But when the company scaled back, he found himself looking for a job.
He ended up going to work in distribution management for Amazon.com.
“I just hated it,” Stolze said. “It was one of those jobs where I spent all of my time locked in a room looking at a computer screen.
“It was so boring, so uninspiring, the opposite of what I wanted to do.”
Stolze knew it was time for a career change, and the time was right with his two sons out of college.
He considered going back to school to earn his master’s degree in engineering or becoming a teacher.
After talking it over with Julie, who is an English teacher at the Rowan County Early College, he decided teaching was his best shot at a happy career.
“She really finds that to be very fulfilling and rewarding,” he said. “When I thought about the part of my job I did like it the training and teaching.”
But Stolze said he still wasn’t sold on the idea. When he realized tuition costs could eclipse $20,000 and he’d be earning a third of the income he had been making, he had second thoughts.
“I just didn’t see it,” he said. “I was kind of grappling with that.”
Not long after that, Julie came back from a meeting with N.C. New Schools and told Greg about the new teacher education program.
“I applied and got accepted,” he said.
The cost-free program, funded by a federal Transition to Teaching grant, has allowed Stolze to get hands-on training without incurring boatloads of debt.
The program includes coursework through a division of the Harvard graduate education school and a 10-month classroom internship.
Stolze began his internship at Cross Creek Early College, located on the Fayetteville State University campus, in August.
Stolze said things were tougher for Julie when she began teaching about 15 years ago. As a lateral entry teacher, she dove right into the classroom and took classes at night.
“Rather than doing what she did, going in without any real training or support, I’m learning how to teach,” Greg Stolze said.
After Stolze wraps up the program this summer, he’s hoping to find a job teaching science and engineering at a high school in the Rowan-Salisbury School System.
The district is one of about 60 in the state that is considered in “high need” of STEM teachers.
“We are operating statewide, but we are concentrated in district that have the need for STEM teachers,” said program director Stacy Costello.
Costello said those districts have a high poverty rate and large number of vacancies or teachers without the proper certification.
“Some of the schools have teachers, but they are not highly qualified in STEM fields,” Costello said. “We’re trying to assist in filling that gap for those district.”
Costello said the program puts future STEM teachers through a more rigorous training process than regular teachers, who only undergo a six to eight week internship.
“It’s very similar to a medical residency kind of program,” she said. “Doctors train alongside experts in their profession for a good long time before they ever even step into the role of a doctor, we’re doing the same thing with teachers.”
Costello said the goal of the program isn’t simply to recruit, but to retain qualified STEM teachers.
“Traditional lateral entry candidates go directly into the classroom without any training whatsoever,” she said. “Research tells us a lot of lateral entry teachers do not stay in the profession long enough to get their professional teaching license because they have no prior training.”
Ten people are currently participating in the 15-month program, which is recruiting 40 candidates for its second year.
Costello said the program continues to guide the teachers throughout the three years it takes before they can earn their teaching certification.
“In terms of changing careers, that can be very confusing,” she said. “It’s such a different world to navigate, so we given them the support they need.”
Costello said the program was created in response to a shortage of math and science teachers across the state.
“These are future skills that students are going to need to have, they are going to need to be strong in science, technology, engineering and math,” she said.
Costello said people, like Stolze, who have already worked in STEM professions offer a unique perspective.
“They really bring that practical application and knowledge into the classroom, so that it becomes less theoretical and more real life,” she said. “The idea is that individuals with this background may have a larger influence on students pursuing STEM professions once they graduate.” ‘
Although STEM has become a topic of conversation among academics during the past several years, Stolze said it’s been important all along.
“The government just figured out that we’re behind, that our school systems are struggling to produce students that can compete out in the work force,” he said.
Stolze said he’s looking forward to getting into the classroom.
“The kids I see now at any of the high schools, they really struggle with trying to make real world connections,” he said. “They struggle with trying to find a real interest because they don’t see any value in it and that’s such horrible mistake to have them make.”
Stolze said when he was a student he wasn’t interested in science classes like physics until he studied engineering.
“I think having a firsthand knowledge of the practical applications of the things being taught will help me make things a lot more interesting,” he said. “Students will retain so much more if the content is grounded in something that’s relevant to them.”
Stolze plans to teach high school, but he sees the need to introduce STEM subjects much earlier.
“By the time kids are coming to high school they are so set in how they learn and how they approach learning,” he said. “They expect teachers to tell them the information so they can remember it, but that’s not the way learning should happen, especially not in science and technology.”
Contact reporter Sarah Campbell at 704-797-7683.