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Poco Windy #18: CTE and STEM - Step into Another Story Part 1

There is a long and valued connection between CTE and STEM. Career-Technical Education and Science-Technology-Engineering-Mathematics. CTE instructors and students need to understand science and mathematical concepts to do their valuable jobs in our economy. Scientists, engineers, and mathematicians need the valuable support work provided by CTE staff. Both STEM and CTE have gone through similar cycles of visibility and popularity in this country, unfortunately. Popular for a while, then vanishing below the horizon when national attention shifted. Only to be found again, amid panic and resurrected – often decades later. Fortunately, both are very sought after now, as their importance in a 21st-century economy has again been discovered.

One of the very best parts of the continuing CTE and STEM stories are the people involved, the instructors that work in CTE, STEM and related fields, training America’s workforce. It’s another story worth reading about, worth telling and retelling. How, in this next case, a woman chose a STEM career as a science instructor ultimately in New Mexico instead of something else, somewhere else. Step with me into this New Mexico CTE – STEM story.

This story begins in1973. Born and raised in southeastern Idaho, Carla Burns graduated from High School in American Falls, Idaho, about an hour from the Idaho National Laboratory, in 1973. Deciding to study science (biology), she enrolled at Utah State University, where she worked for a biology professor who also encouraged her to also take science education classes. As we have seen in countless other examples, such encouragement turned out to be a career-defining event. Graduating in May 1976, Burns accepted a science instructor position far to the south, in New Mexico’s uranium country – Grants, New Mexico. There, inside the classroom and outside the classroom, Burns spent 7½ years teaching biology and later chemistry at Webster Junior High and Grants High School including to CTE students. She took a year off to work in the uranium industry for Kerr-McGee Nuclear (1979-80) as an environmental technician. A CTE job, sampling mine metal samples for radiation and sulfur dioxide. Tested above ground and underground. Ran chemical tests. Then went back to teaching. She moved to Lincoln County and took a job at Ruidoso Middle School, teaching general science for 8 years, then transferring to Ruidoso High School where she taught math, chemistry, physics, astronomy, and geology (and the soft skills) until her retirement in 2019. Carla also taught STEM at ENMU at Ruidoso from 1993 to 2019. She eventually spent 42 years as a STEM educator.

Often, Carla worked Summers too. She managed the NASA-funded Summer Science program at ENMU at Ruidoso for Lincoln County middle school and high school students. As such, she gathered a talented pool of math instructors, CTE instructors, USFS biologists, engineers who as a team, encouraged students to finish high school, go to college, study STEM subjects. Several of those participants are now teachers in Lincoln County school classrooms today. The awards started rolling in. Outside of her work in Lincoln County, Burns served on the New Mexico Science Teachers Association (NMSTA) as President, Secretary, regional representative, member of the Board of Directors, in total serving 34 years. Burns also worked summers at New Mexico Tech in programs such as ‘Rocking Around New Mexico’, through the Bureau of Geology, earning an MS there in 1983. From 2004 to the present, she has worked nationally for three different science textbook companies. Was awarded the Presidential Award for Excellence in Math and Science Education, and the AAAS Outstanding Science Teacher for New Mexico in 1988 and received the awards in Washington, D.C. Worked for several decades in the New Mexico MESA program, first in Grants, later creating the Ruidoso program. MESA focused on STEM minority students and girls. Burns - known throughout New Mexico science education. Award-winning.

The Burns story is only one of many CTE/STEM ‘people’ stories. A legendary STEM instructor Carla Burns. Next time, we will cover the second part of the Burns interview. 

By Dr. James Miller