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Education Lab is a yearlong project to spark meaningful conversations about education solutions in the Pacific Northwest.

February 11, 2014 at 5:00 AM

Customized Skittles? Award honors teachers who break the mold

12th man Skittles. Courtesy Michael Wierusz.

12th man Skittles. Courtesy Michael Wierusz.

Amid a steady drumbeat of anti-union sentiment and the rise of charter schools, it’s not surprising that teacher morale in some states is at a 25-year low.

But the seven men and women selected as particularly innovative educators by Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen are not in this camp. Most work in public schools. All are pioneering new ways to teach tech-based education, and each received $25,000 from one of the best-known entrepreneurs in the world to bolster those efforts.

“We look to support the creative and the untapped,” said Jody Allen, co-founder and president of The Paul G. Allen Family Foundation. Each of the honored teachers has “the entrepreneurial mindset to rethink education,” she added.

Regan Drew, for example, began her career in marketing with the Seattle Storm, wound up teaching business in the Mead School District near Spokane, and then created an entirely new school – Riverpoint Academy – focused on turning standard Science, Technology, Engineering and Math lessons (commonly known as STEM) into actual inventions.

“Without entrepreneurship, STEM can just sit there and not go anywhere,” Drew told a panel at the Allen Foundation last week, explaining her work at the two-year-old academy.

She followed Mike Wierusz, a teacher from Bothell’s Northshore School District, who created a course in sustainable engineering design for juniors and seniors – hardly your typical shop class.

Last week, his students asked if they could laser-etch a “12″ on a series of Skittles, in honor of the Seattle Seahawks’ Superbowl win. Before class was out, the newly-branded candies had gone viral on social media — Tweeted by students and picked up by local news until Seahawks’ running back Marshawn Lynch himself took note.

Would a laser cutter even work on a Skittle? Would candy ruin the machine or cause a fire? Wierusz had no idea.

“I had to be comfortable allowing my students to go somewhere I hadn’t been before — that’s risk,” he said. “And there’s learning potential in risk. It wasn’t just that we had this tool, the laser cutter. It was having the time and the freedom to figure this out. I tell my students that it isn’t my classroom, it’s theirs. The idea that the teacher is the sole conduit for growth is, these days, off the mark.”

Common to all of the Allen Distinguished Educators were similar notions of rebuilding classrooms, schedules and the very notion of achievement itself to better suit the 21st century. Any of those efforts might easily run afoul of school-district regulations. But Drew and Wierusz both said they had benefited from unusually visionary administrators.

“They’re allowing me to teach the kind of class I wish I’d had in high school,” Wierusz said.

Comments | More in News | Topics: awards, teaching

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