Own Your Curiosity: High School Reimagined
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Episode Show Notes
"What else can high school look like?" Mikala Streeter wondered about that question as her career expanded from the computer science industry into teaching young people and nurturing their passions. Mikala is Principal and Lead Teacher at the LIFE School, an independent high school that she founded in Atlanta, Georgia. She talks about the philosophy of The LIFE School, which focuses on curiosity, real-world work, and breaking barriers among disciplines. As an MIT grad, she also highlights how her students integrate design thinking into their interdisciplinary self-directed projects.
Remember that the podcast will be at the SXSW Conference and Festival in March, 2017! Pius and Rachel from the podcast will be running workshops for educators and professional engineers: www.sxsw.com
Our opening music comes from "School Zone (radio edit)" by The Honorable Sleaze. Our closing music is from "Late for School" by Bleeptor. Both are used under Creative Commons Attribution Licenses: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0
Subscribe and leave episode reviews wherever you get your podcasts. Support Pios Labs with regular donations on Patreon or by buying a copy of the reference book Engineer's Guide to Improv and Art Games by Pius Wong. You'll also be supporting educational tools and projects like Chordinates! or The Calculator Gator. Thanks to our donors and listeners for making the show possible. The K12 Engineering Education Podcast is a production of Pios Labs.
The K12 Engineering Education Podcast
Ice Cream Engineering
[Pius Wong] This is The K12 Engineering Education Podcast for November 14, 2016.
[Pius] Hi everyone. I’m Pius. Today we hear from Mikala Streeter, Principal and Lead Teacher for The LIFE School, and independent high school in Atlanta, Georgia. The philosophy from the LIFE school grew from Mikala’s experience in computer science and education, starting at MIT and Stanford, and she’s here on Skype to talk about all of that. As you’ll hear, the LIFE School is distinctly different from the traditional high school.
[Pius] And so, Mikala, thanks for being on the podcast today.
[Mikala Streeter] Yeah, thanks, Pius.
[Pius] Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and your school, The LIFE School?
[Mikala] Sure, yes. Our school, The LIFE School, is an independent high school in Atlanta, and our focus is on empowering students to discover and pursue their passions while they’re in high school, and to do real work while they’re in high school. So it’s not just about learning a bunch of bits of knowledge that you might one day use down the line, but learning things in a real context, and being able to apply them right away. To take action on what you’re learning.
[Pius] What does “real work” mean in that school?
[Mikala] So “real work” is about students creating products and artifacts that real people use. So if they’re building – they’re learning about entrepreneurship. They aren’t just like learning about it. They’re creating a real business, and going it and getting real customers and people to pay. So we have a student right now who’s writing a novel, and so, that’s something that he’s been working on. And now that he’s part of our school, has committed to knocking out this novel. And we’re going to try to have it all bound and ready to go by next Thursday, actually, for our museum night. And so – But it’s not just like, OK, it sounds cool that I’m working on a novel. It’s like, no, have it bound. Have it ready for people to buy at this even where people are coming. Another student’s working on a basketball tournament. He attended a basketball tournament – a three-on-three tournament maybe a year or two ago, but it wasn’t as organized as it could be. He said, you know, I could do this better, and I could make a ton of money doing it possibly. And so he’s been diving into the details of setting up the website, reserving the gym, sending out Facebook ads, and recruiting people to form teams and actually show up at this event. And it’s one thing to learn about entrepreneurship. It’s one thing to go through a program. But it’s another thing to have to really, you know, show up and make it happen, and see if these ideas that you were talking about – will someone actually spend money on it? Will someone actually show up? That’s really what we’re about.
[Pius] So all of that sounds really awesome. I would love to go to a school like that. And it also sounds really hard. So how do you support kids doing that?
[Mikala] Yeah, so we have – they have time every day to work on their own individual projects, and then they also have time where we’re working on a group project together. The group project is a really great space for them to build traditional academic skills around reading, writing, doing math, and whatnot. But they also build skills around project management and things like setting up websites, or having informational interviews with people, and things like that. And so we look at their skills as far as their personal and academic and professional growth, and try to integrate that into all the projects that they’re working on. So there’s a ton of modeling and practicing and feedback. And then we also are rapidly building a community of people who want to basically be coaches for students, to say, sure, I’ll chat with them for fifteen minutes about writing, I’m a writer, you know? Or, I’m a journalist. We had someone come by for an hour or so one day. We talked about how he uses technology to address social issues. So people who are doing this work all over the country are committing to be coaches for students. What’s nice is that our model is so interdisciplinary and flexible that we don’t need full-time – we don’t need a full-time entrepreneurship coach, or full-time English coach, or full-time whatever for like every little thing. But there are tons of resources online, and tons of people who really want to connect and work with students. And so they get these amazing experts, people all around the world, who want to work with them. And you can cover a lot in a fifteen or twenty minute conversation, or a couple emails back and forth, and really clarify a lot or learn a lot about a new field.
[Pius] I have so many questions to ask, but I want to back up a bit. Can you tell us briefly what you do in the school?
[Mikala] Oh right, yeah. So I’m the founder and Principal of the school and also, right now, the teacher, so everything.
[Pius] What do you teach?
[Mikala] So we have – All our classes are interdisciplinary, so I teach everything right now. And then over time we’ll look at more staff, but we have a team of people who work behind the scenes to do all the operations stuff. So making sure the lights stay on, and people know about the school, and we’re ready for events and stuff in the community, things like that.
[Pius] Yeah. And how big is your school? How many students?
[Mikala] So right now we have four students. This is our first year. And then we’ll see. It will go to about twenty or twenty-five students for next year.
[Pius] Yeah, so I was wondering like – I was imagining this class of hundred, and you’re giving them all individual attention. OK. So it is hard, but because you have a smaller number of students, it seems like you can support them with they want.
[Mikala] Yeah, and it’s – especially in their individual projects, it’s fairly low-touch. So when students are working on their own individual projects, in the afternoons, they’re pretty zoomed-in. Like I might spend some time with them at the beginning of their project to talk about, how you might start it or approach it. But for the most part they’re working independent of me, or they’re using online resources. They’re – YouTube has so much, right? Or they’re talking with experts that I match them with all over. So as we scale, we’ll definitely need more staff, but that independent project time – even though the projects are pretty tough for students, they’re picking something that’s like in their zone of proximal development. Something that won’t cause them to panic, but isn’t too comfortable. A just right amount of stretch for their skills and ability. So there’s a ton of support baked in. But also a ton of reasonableness, what they’re doing and what they’re working on.
[Pius] So there are two questions I want to ask before I forget it. They’re not directly related, but the first question is: It sounds like your team is pretty critical. All those connections you’ve made are critical for helping your kids. How did you make those connections? And the second question is related to educational standards. How do you ensure that your kids are still learning all those basic things that kids across Georgia have to learn?
[Mikala] Yeah, so a lot of the connections are people that I’ve met, people our team have met, are friends with. It’s a pretty easy ask, I’ve found, to say, hey, you know you’re really great at this. I have a student who’s super motivated to do the thing that you do. Can they pick your brain for twenty minutes? And that’s something that people are – Everyone wants to be the expert at some point, you know? And so having the opportunity to share something with the student, people get really excited about, and are pretty decent at it. We coach the students on how you have those conversations with people. You make sure you make the most of their time, and that sort of thing. But people have been really great and willing to have those conversations and work with students.
[Pius] And so what about meeting those meeting those basic standards that I guess every school is supposed to meet. How do you ensure that your kid who’s writing a novel is also learning about the algebra or something else that they have to learn?
[Mikala] Yup. So the first part is that, as a private school, we don’t have meet all the Georgia requirements. So the second part: As a high school, our biggest point of accountability is parent satisfaction, because they pay tuition, and they send their kids here. We want them to feel good about the experience their kids are having. And the other point of accountability is – I guess there’s two others. One is accreditation, and the second piece is college admissions. So when students are going to apply to college and take AP exams or SAT/ACT exams, are they ready? Do they feel good about it? Do they do well? And so, making sure that they’re ready for those exams as well as being able to present their work to colleges, is a big point of accountability. And so, we have a system of, basically a mastery-based approach, where students are developing the skills through their individual projects and through our group projects. So for every group project that we do for learning about something big like dinosaurs, for example, or civil rights, Here are the math skills, here are the science skills, here are the humanities-related skills, here are the technology-related skills that students are building. But they’re all integrated into this meaningful context, and so it’s not like I’m doing math over here and science over here. You’re seeing how it all comes together to do something purposeful, to understand some complex, real-world topic. But we are able to them unpack, using this mastery-based approach, going OK, we learned a bunch of math here. Now show it to me in this separate space. This separate project that you do individually. So the idea is that in an interdisciplinary project, they’re still learning skills that we’re mapping back to separate subjects. And so as they work through these proejcts, they’re earning credit for those subject areas.
[Pius] OK. So this is The K12 Engineering Education Podcast, and I’m curious: Have any of your students started an engineering design project or modeling project?
[Mikala] Yeah. So we’ve gone to – There are actually several Makerspaces within ten minutes of us, and so we’ve gone to do one project so far with a laser cutter, and we’re mapping out a CNC project, some 3D printing projects. And then some students are also on their own working on video game design and 3D modeling. There’s another student interested in – who does music production – and so he’s been using music software, and so I’ve been trying to show him ways that you can make music with code. And so there are a lot of interesting integrations where your students are bringing in technology, connecting them to their own interests. Like, web design and graphic design, stuff like that, too.
[Pius] Do you teach them a structured design process, or they’re all kind of self-discovering the method to create things?
[Mikala] So some of the projects are like: I’m really curious about making this game. They already know exactly what they want to make, and so they just try and like poke around and see what they cane come up with. Other times we work through a more structured process. We use the Google Ventures Design Sprint, their 5-day design sprint. So in our group projects, it’s like a six-week cycle. The first two weeks we’re just learning about the topic, going on trips, talking to experts trying to understand it. And then the second two weeks, we use the design process to define a design question. So how might we do something? And then work through it to build a prototype, test it, and then build a hi-fi prototype and then publish it.
[Pius] That’s awesome. That’s like the goal of a lot of engineering teachers in other schools. How did you develop this? Basically, how did the LIFE School start, and how did you develop this philosophy?
[Mikala] Yup. So my background is in computer science. I studied CS at MIT. And there’s a ton of hands-on work there. I remember in my first computer science class, we built MapQuest. It was like Google Maps at the time, and that was just really eye-opening, to think about all the things you have to think about. And we just mapped out the city of Boston. So that was just – It was really helpful to understand the way the software design, how complex it can be. So from MIT I moved to California, worked as a software developer, and then realized that I had done a lot of youth development and community service growing up and in college, and I missed that. So I was working at this huge enterprise company, just didn’t get a lot out of that. And I started volunteering at a school where I ended up teaching. And so I taught this high school in California. I also worked in the boarding program. And that was a great experience just to see what the students were thinking about day-to-day, what they were working on, how I might develop other students who were excited about the things I was excited about, like math and computer science. And how do you effectively convey your enthusiasm for something, you know, to other people? And so I built a lot of interpersonal skills and teaching and learning skills through that. But the most interesting piece was working in the boarding program, and seeing, you know, what students were like at the end of the day. I think, you know, students for the most part learn how to sit quietly and do their work in class and have their, like, classroom persona, and then in the evenings, they just kind of let it all loose. They’ve been in school for eight or nine hours, and they’re tired. They still have more homework. And so I saw a lot of what they liked about school but also what they were frustrated about. And also got to know what they’re passionate about, and what they’re concerned about in their communities. And we had these really great conversations about something happening in the town where we were, something happening in Oakland or another town, or a project they were really excited about, and then have to cut it off. Just stop the conversation in the middle of something very compelling, and then go do homework or something else. But we were learning, we were having really important conversation. Why can’t that – Why did that have to stop, you know, for something else? That’s not as engaging and felt more disconnected from the things that they were really passionate and excited about. And so I began to think about what else high school could look like, so that students were still prepared for college, but where their passions and interests in the world have more of a place in their learning in their school day. What you major in in college and the career you choose to pursue comes from the things that you’re interested in, and if you don’t have a place to really explore those things, it’s hard to know what you most enjoy doing for the rest of your life, possibly. So that’s something that I really value. Having that space to explore.
[Pius] That boarding experience sounds pretty pivotal. It was like a practice session in a way, of what LIFE School could be. Is LIFE School a boarding or residential school as well?
[Mikala] No, so it’s not a residential school. Boarding programs are tough. Getting someone who wants to live with teenagers.
[Mikala] It’s a big commitment. But we’re just taking the insights and observations from the boarding program – we’re bringing those into the school day. So having those conversations with the students, digging into really complex ideas about the world, and seeing how learning can happen from like this one spark of curiosity. So a student recently was reading Freakonomics, and he just that it was interesting stories, and so we started unpacking each chapter, and there’s so much about the world. There’s so much about economics. There’s so much about so many things in that book. But just because we had that time to sit together and talk about the book, we were able to cover a lot of interesting things.
[Pius] Yeah, I’m sure. Do you ever run into conflicts with the students, where maybe the students – they want to pursue what they want to learn, but maybe you or their mentors think, hey, they should also study this thing, because it might expand their understanding? How do you deal with when that happens?
[Mikala] I’d say that students are for the most part pretty open to learning new things. I think it’s – a big part of it is presentation. So is it connected to something they’re already interested in? So if we’re going to talk about politics, or if we’re going to talk about math –
[Pius] Or engineering, for example.
[Mikala] Or engineering. Right. Connecting it to something they’re already interest in, and why might this skill help them get further along the path of the thing they’re interested in. So I had a student who was working on video game design, and so he’s focusing on the coding piece right now, but I was like, you also might want to think about the visual element of it, and creating your own character. And so he started working on drawing and 3D modeling. Another student who’s the video production or into music production – think about the coding. He goes I don’t code. That’s not for me. That’s not my thing. But then I was telling him, here’s a way that you can write code and have this skill and also create music in a different way. And then it’s like, oh OK. Maybe that’s not strange. So that’s one thing. Connecting it to their interests. And the second thing is, we try to focus on authentic, more organic ways of learning. So if we were going to learn engineering, or you’re going to learn history or something, we would use either something that’s hands-on, or some video or book that was designed to be engaging, as opposed to like a traditional classroom material. So we would go to the Makerspace and see all the makers making cool things and say, we’re going to make something small just tog et your feet wet and see if you like it. Even though this is like random and disconnected from other things you might be interested in. Or like, we’re going to watch this quick clip from this interesting documentary or television show that just introduces this idea of something that happened in the past or something that’s happening right now in the world, and see if something about it piques a question or piques a curiosity. Part of our culture, at least that we’re trying to already put into place, is about being curious. It’s not just about the things you already know about. There are tons of other things happening in the world, tons of things that you could be learning, so continue to learn. Continue to ask questions. Or start doing math, if that’s not something now already part of your practice. So every morning, we’re building in, every morning we check our email. Every morning we update our goals. Every morning we check the news and see what’s happening out there and talk about it.
[Pius] Yeah. So it’s important no matter what your kids are studying, it sounds like that you really have to know your kids and what their exploring and what they might be interested in. And I keep thinking, wow that must take some time. Can I ask how much is tuition for a kid?
[Mikala] Sure. Yeah, we have a sliding scale from $8000 to $16,000. Families can pick.
[Pius] So that’s per year?
[Mikala] Per year, exactly.
[Pius] Wow. So you can find the resources to educate these kids in that way with just that much. I don’t know. I guess I’m a little surprised, because I know other – maybe because they’re residential schools, they’re a lot more expensive.
[Mikala] Right. Residential schools would be closer to $50,000. But private school would probably be like $20k to $30k traditionally.
[Pius] Right, so it’s less than I thought if you were to give all this attention. How do you manage to do that?
[Mikala] I think part of it is that we don’t need a person for every subject area. For me, in thinking about hiring and staffing going forward, to me what’s more interesting is what people call Renaissance people. People who know a lot about a lot of different things and can help to make those connections. So like a dancer who’s also an engineer, or like a writer who loves art or history, you know? Someone who can really make compelling connections for students across lots of different areas and show students what it’s like to be curious and show students what it’s like to have lots of different interests. There is some quote that’s like, you should build expertise in two completely different areas, and then where you’d really be able to do something interesting, or do something creative, is where these, where you find the connection points between these two disparate interests that you have, passions that you have. Someone who might be really great at helping students with their writing could also help them with math, help them understand history or historical ideas. And so we don’t need a person for every topic.
[Pius] Yeah. Still finding that right person is really important.
[Pius] But I guess you rely on your connections.
[Mikala] Exactly. And podcasts. [laughs]
[Pius] Of course. So if anyone’s listening, who’s a great engineer and Renaissance person, they can contact you?
[Mikala] Exactly. So that’s part of it. We don’t need a whole lot of staff. And also that we have a lot of different people who are volunteering to work with students part-time in these coaching roles, to give expertise. We can’t have a world-famous journalist, or whatever, here every day, but if that person’s available somewhere else and can Skype in, then that’s a huge benefit for students without taxing our budget too much.
[Pius] Yeah, I’ve heard that that’s the trend now. A lot of schools want a lot of mentors to Skype in or visit. It sounds like that’s what you’re trying to do, too.
[Mikala] Yeah. And so it’s not just for the career day. You can do it! – kind of speech. It’s like, I’m working on my book. Can you help me? -- kind of thing.
[Pius] In the final minutes, can you tell me about your future plans? You already started talking about staff and hiring, but what do you see The LIFE School becoming down the road?
[Mikala] Yes. So I definitely want to grow this current campus, and then expand to other cities. The hope is that we would have different campuses in different cities around the world, so that a student could say, I’m really curious about what Barcelona is like. I’m really curious about what Johannesburg is like. And to be able to go there, to work with local students and local staff – even for our staff, to be able to go to different campuses in different parts of the world – and to be able to continue this same approach to learning that they would get here, but to be able to do it somewhere else, sort of like a – Do you know about these coworkations? Like where you go on coworking vacations? Where you continue to work, but you’re in Thailand.
[Pius] You know what, I didn’t know that word, but one of my brothers is doing that now. So I’m familiar.
[Mikala] Yeah, it’s exactly that. So that you could go somewhere else and see that other place but continue to work, continue to work toward high school graduation, college admissions, that sort of thing. But you get to explore the world, because so much of it is students should be able to explore their own interests, but it really is that other piece. There’s tons of things that you don’t know, and having that opportunity for exposure to life beyond what you already know, what you already see.
[Pius] That makes me think, in the future if you don’t have it now, I’d still really love to see the data basically. What do your students go on to do? What do students who go – who have an education with this philosophy – how do they, how do they turn out, I guess?
[Mikala] Absolutely. We have some juniors now, so we’ll have some of that pretty soon.
[Pius] OK. Yeah, that’d be great. I’ll keep up on that. Thanks so much, Mikala. I think that that’s all I have time for, but did you have any last tips for any engineering teachers, or any other educators who are listening?
[Mikala] I think the big thing, from teaching computer science and also working with students on engineering skills now, is that, often we teach engineering in a silo, just like we do math and history and all those other subjects. But engineering, when you’re building, you’re building bridges that people will drive over in real cities, next to other real things. And bringing in that human element, that human-centered design, in that context, into engineering classes, I think makes it all the more powerful. And also allows students who are not sure if they don’t necessarily see themselves as an engineer – they haven’t taken on that identity yet – it makes them say I can connect my love of civic issues, I can connect my love of art, you know, to engineering, because it has this human element. And so just like we talked about connecting math and science and history together, connecting engineering into the conversation makes it all the more powerful.
[Pius] Thank you. And if anyone wants to contact you, where can they find you?
[Mikala] Yes. So on our website, www.thelifeschool.co, there is a webform, and so it will go over to me, and I can get in touch with them and chat about anything they have questions on.
[Pius] Perfect. Thanks so much Mikala.
[Mikala] Cool. Thanks for talking with me. This was great.
[Pius] You’re very welcome.
[Pius] That was Mikala Streeter of The LIFE School. I’m definitely interested in how The LIFE School evolves, and if you’re interested, too, you can find links to The LIFE School and to Mikala’s contact information and to other resources that were mentioned today in the show notes. If you have questions or comments for me, please leave a rating or review or comment on iTunes, SoundCloud, Reddit, or wherever you can find me. Find that info at www.k12engineering.net.
[Pius] Our opening music comes from School Zone by The Honorable Sleaze, who’s also on SoundCloud, so go check him out. Our closing music is from Late for School by Bleeptor. Both are used under Creative Commons Attribution licenses. The K12 Engineering Education Podcast is a production of Pios Labs, www.pioslabs.com. Thanks for listening, and tune in next time.
[Pius] Just an update on South by Southwest in 2017. One of the workshops I’m presenting is at South by Southwest Interactive. That’s the big festival about technology and games and all that good stuff, and fittingly, that workshop is called “Improv and Art Games for Designers and Engineers.” It’ll focus on the part of the design process where you have to generate ideas for solutions, and my colleague Rachel is going to help me run it. It’ll be really fun, so if you can make it, I hope to see you out there.