We Can Do Anything We Set Our Minds To: A Teacher Builds a Network of Learners

By Theresa Strepek
Theresa Strepek is a former technology teacher and software developer. She shares her thoughts about working on Planet Lab, and the importance of high-quality project-based learning. 
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Theresa Strepek and her daughter celebrate with winners of the CNT Sustainability Apps Hackathon.

This year, I’ve been a part of one of the most exciting endeavors of my lifetime. We’re building a new way to connect students to STEM education through Planet Lab.

When I signed up for a sustainability hackathon last year, I felt driven to connect my skills in software development with an important goal–to create a 21st Century economy that can sustain our future generations. I felt immediately inspired by the core idea of Planet Lab–to help every teacher connect their classroom with fun, networked STEM projects that make a positive impact on people and the planet.

I spent five years teaching computers and technology in an Illinois high school.  I was in charge of the school’s Technology curriculum. There, I saw that there were two basic approaches to lesson planning. The first was step by step instructions and worksheets. In this kind of lesson, students were engaged in only a shallow way; they put in just enough effort to get to the end. But the second type of lesson was project-based.  In this type of classroom, individual lessons built into larger, meaningful projects–projects that require real-life connections and applied thinking.  I soon realized that if I bored my students, they would forget the material I taught them.

As I honed my craft as a teacher, I remembered my own time as a high schooler. I lost some of my own natural curiosity by just sitting my desk studying facts from books. I remember others students that were disengaged and bored because the learning disconnected from real life applications. I knew that isolated learning was failing to lead to long-term learning.  So when I had a chance to design curriculum, I aimed to create content that pricked deeper cognitive learning…projects that were genuinely interesting because they connected to important issues and challenges.

How does a young person get the kind of confidence that they need to innovate new solutions? First, they have to know that we need them–we need their creative contribution. We need to focus together on real problems–not just facts and formulas.  We need to help them to have “A Ha” moments. We need to connect them to the Big Picture.

As a teacher, I wove a common thread through each interaction with each student I saw each month. I looked my each student in the eye and said “I see that this is an area of natural strength for you”–whether it was design, computation, beginning programming, leadership. I wanted to help light that spark of curiosity into a career-driven pursuit. I devised every classroom project to begin with a real-world challenge.

I believe that project-based learning–where students have to pose questions and solve real-world problems–is the direction that we need to go in to improve our school system.  Unfortunately, every teacher is crunched for time. It’s hard to research and prepare this kind of activity. In America we are so focused on these tests that we forget what learning is for. Planet Lab solves that problem; we’re supporting student and teacher access to great content and projects created by experts from many fields.

To me, Planet Lab is not  a destination. Planet Lab is a journey.  As students make contributions to real-world projects in citizen science and sustainability, they get involved in the broader community. They learn exactly WHY learning is important, and HOW it will be useful in their lives. They have the chance to learn with one another, and from those experts who can cast a vision of the broader world.

I’m the grand daughter of a WW2 Veteran, and I’m also a person of Blackfoot Native American heritage.  When I think about all of the challenges that face our next generation–energy, agriculture, health, medicine & building a strong economy–I just think back to the principle that my grandfather always told to me. We can do anything that we set our minds to. 


Connecting Every Classroom to Exceptional STEM Learning

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Arianna Lambie teaches a project-based lesson on earthquake proof buildings to her 7th grade class.

by Arianna Lambie

When I was a classroom teacher, I was always on-line. I tried hard to stay up to date with cutting-edge teaching resources in science.  Given how many resources are out there, it was a nearly impossible task.

Over the last few months, I’ve had the honor of speaking with leaders from many of the most reputable STEM organizations in the country.  We’ve discussed each other’s work and missions, and I’ve invited them to distribute their educational content through the Planet Lab network.  In less than two months, Planet Lab has developed partnerships with more than 25 federal, academic, and local STEM institutions who’ve resolved to share their educational material through Planet Lab, making it easy for teachers and students to find exceptional learning content. Working together, we will build the first-of-its-kind library of searchable, standards-aligned, project-based and multi-media STEM resources.

What also impressed me was the enthusiasm with which many of the STEM organization representatives responded to Planet Lab.  They saw it as filling a vital, unmet need. Tony Beck from the National Institute of Health (NIH) valued the networking aspect of Planet Lab: “A lot of major organizations are doing great work in the area of STEM education, but we don’t often talk to each other.  You are providing a tremendous service.” Robert Ridky of the US Geological Survey (USGS) appreciated Planet Lab’s focus on cross-disciplinary project-based learning: “We need more relevant, interdisciplinary learning resources. Just because there a lot of good science things on the web does not mean that they are appropriate to an instructional setting. You and your team are doing important work.”

During this outreach process, I was struck by the wealth and depth of educational resources that STEM organizations are producing.  As an educator who frequently searches online for lesson supplements, I discovered countless new sites and new levels of resources that I wish I had known about when I was a classroom teacher.  It made me fully appreciate the way the Planet Lab network with grow opportunities for educators and students.

Encouraged by the positive response from this initial outreach, we continue to develop new partnerships with STEM organizations around the country.  From the content shared by our partners, our curriculum team will be able to build a full suite of quests and missions in subject areas ranging from ecology to electricity by Planet Lab’s launch in 2015.