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. 

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