Even before the coronavirus, employers and educators agreed that our education system wasn’t preparing our students to compete in a fast-changing digital economy. Millions of students may not be workforce-ready because we designed education systems around a one-size-fits-all approach rather than each student’s potential. And, while Covid-19 has been devastating particularly for Black, Brown and low-income communities, it has also provided us with powerful lessons for reimagining learning as we seek to build back better. For instance, our experience during the pandemic has reinforced that learning in the 21st century cannot — and will not — take place only in the classroom. It must transcend time and place and connect with students’ passions, interests and future ambitions. To achieve this, students must have access to technology and supports beyond the classroom that can spark a love for learning.
I’m an eternal optimist, inspired by those education leaders, teachers, nonprofits and edtech entrepreneurs who are building personalized learning experiences that transcend time, space and location. Those leaders have shown us what is possible when we “lean in” to support student agency or when parents and educators work together in learning pods to bring learning into student’s homes. They’re proving every day that when we tailor education to the needs of students and provide them with opportunities to lead their learning, amazing things are possible.
Take, for instance, Alena Analeigh, a breakthrough student who recently started her first year at Arizona State University studying mechanical engineering. In addition to her academic achievements, Alena is a successful entrepreneur, having founded the Brown STEM Girl Foundation, which focuses on getting more young girls of color into science, technology, engineering and math. In her first year, she convinced eight municipalities to declare April 30 as STEM in the City Day to honor women of color in STEM fields.
Alena is also 12 years old.
While she is clearly an exceptional young woman, we shouldn’t write her success off as the exception. Alena benefited from a unique educational journey that was unbounded by traditional notions of school, combining classroom, homeschool, dual enrollment and “global classroom” experiences. It was a learning journey that was truly personalized, aligned to her needs and future aspirations. Her experiences should serve as a model for a reimagined vision of education that should be in reach for all students.
At this year’s ASU+GSV Summit, I talked to Alena about her education journey and what it can mean for millions of students.
Phyllis Lockett: Given that you’re 12 and already in college, it should be no surprise that you’ve had an exceptional journey. Tell me about it.
Alena Analeigh: I was mostly homeschooled, but also did spend some time in traditional schools. In fact, I started in a regular school, but my mother pulled me out when I was seven, because my principal told me that I couldn’t get all A’s because of my skin color. It hurt, but it also made me determined. It convinced me that I could—and would—prove them wrong by getting all As.
Lockett: That is heartbreaking, but also reflects a not-too-uncommon experience for young students of color across the country. And, I think you did prove that principal and others wrong. You didn’t only get all As but you also completed middle and high school at the same time. How did you do this?
Alena: It wasn’t easy, there was definitely a lot of work. What I really needed was organization—I had to be very organized, and then I could manage the work and didn’t have to think about a bunch of different things at the same time.
Lockett: When we first met, you referred to your education journey as “unschooling.” What did you mean by that?
Alena: In regular school, you would go to a classroom each morning and be expected to learn a specific thing at a certain time. With unschooling, you don’t have to learn something at one particular time or at a pace that a teacher or school says you need to keep. You do it at your own time. You could wake up in the evening and say, “OK, I’m going to work now.” You also have the luxury of traveling the world and learning through “world schooling” and experiencing other cultures.
Lockett: Talk to me about when you fell in love with STEM. Do you remember when the light turned on for you?
Alena: I’ve always loved science. I’ve loved Legos since I was four; I was always organizing them. I didn’t like for anyone to touch my Legos. But I also just love sitting at night and watching the stars. I remember my mom coming outside saying, “It’s 11 o’clock. Come inside the house.” Something about the stars tells me what’s out there and what could possibly be a part of our galaxy.
Lockett: Where did you work this summer?
Alena: I had an internship with NASA and actually got to go to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which has extremely large replicas of the actual rovers that went to Mars.
I was so excited. I actually did a little mini-dance while I was there.
Lockett: So what do you want to do with your life?
Alena: I plan to go to medical school. I absolutely love engineering, but I also love the biomedical field. Right now I’m on track to graduate with my B.S. and M.S. in 2024 and plan to complete medical school by the time I’m 18.
Lockett: Why did you start Brown STEM Girl, and what are you hoping to achieve?
Alena: I started it to give STEM opportunities to other girls of color. It’s been going very well. I have events for Brown STEM Girl where I give scholarships, with my partner schools, to girls of color. We provide internships and mentorships to girls all over the world. This fall, we also have a trip to Singapore taking 30 girls to see the Art and Science Museum, for example. We have a lot going on.
Lockett: What’s inspiring you to do this? You’ve got so much on your plate already.
Alena: You don’t see a lot of women in STEM. I thought, “Why don’t I make a group where I can show people that there can be girls like me in STEM?” I thought back to my principal and decided to help girls do what I’d been wanting to do.
Lockett: If you had a magic wand and could change school, what would you do?
Alena: I would take away testing, and I have a really good reason for that. I can be really good in a subject, but I get to the test and totally freeze up. Why would you base a student’s whole life off of test scores? My second thing would be for schools to support organizations like Brown STEM Girl so we can provide more opportunities to young girls like me who might not have an opportunity to get into STEM or might have adults telling them that they simply can’t achieve or be successful.
Lockett: As horrible as this pandemic has been, it has presented us with a unique opportunity to reimagine our system of education—an opportunity that we can’t afford to miss. Alena’s story provides a sterling example of what is possible when we have the courage to challenge our traditional notions of school and enable learning experiences that align to students’ needs and passions wherever they might be. Imagine all of the potential that can be unlocked if Alena’s learning journey was the norm and not an exception.