Perspectives from the Field: LTB tutor Natasha Batalha

As a graduate student at Penn State studying astrophysics and astrobiology I spend most of my days caught up in the subtleties of planetary atmospheres, Mars, exoplanets, biosignatures, and complex computer programs. Sounds thrilling, I know, but trust me when I say that I love what I do. Nevermind the fact that I can come to work when I want, can wear what I want, and can leave when I want — the entire course of my day is driven by my own curiosity and my own pursuit of knowledge. I go (for the most part) where my mind takes me. And boy, does it take me places. Although I spend most (sorry advisors) of my time on my research, a few years ago I started to think about how I could use that research and my decades-long education to give back. And if we are being honest, I wish this were something I could’ve thought about earlier in life.

See, I was born into a family with parents who told me that I could be the first person to step foot on Mars, that I could actually aid in finding life elsewhere in the Solar System and that hard work and a good education could unleash an endless sea of opportunity. This mindset became part of my being. Lost in the depths of my brain, I didn’t realize how convolved it was with my everyday life. Yet, the classes I took, the friends I made, the college I went to, were all subconsciously predicated around the idea that I would surround myself with equal-minded, driven, intelligent people. And, this was black and white for me because my hard work was always complimented by good grades, praise from teachers, a college acceptance letter, etc. So to me, hard work = success. Simple, right?

It wasn’t until my younger sister (11 years apart) entered elementary school that I began to realize the complexity of my previous statement. Early on, the things that were easy for me were difficult for her. We were taught using identical techniques but she had a rough time getting acclimated to the CA public school system. She was put with other kids who were also deemed “slow learners” (don’t get me started on this…) and then it seemed like her fate was set. She lost confidence in herself and despite my parents attempt to help her, she started falling behind. My parents talked to the teachers, helped her with homework, got her tested for learning disabilities and years later, she is finally coming around as she enters high school.

In this whole process I learned just how swamped the public school teachers are. The teachers were unable to provide my sister the one-on-one attention she needed; so instead of figuring out what learning strategies worked for her, they put her in slower classes and let her and many other students fall behind. Even in the San Ramon Valley School District- whose students rank in the 5–10% statewide on multiple performance measures- classes average 26 students to 1 teacher. This is one of the best-case scenarios. Also, if you go to the SRVSD website, there is a note that says the parents volunteer over 300,000 hours of volunteer service! It also says that middle school class sizes have been reduced through funds raised by the community. So if students can get lost in the cream-of-the-crop public education system, what about the communities in which parents are too busy earning just enough to feed their kids, and so giving time or money to the school is not an option? What about the parents who can’t help their kids with their homework because they don’t have an education themselves? The list goes on, but my point is clear: the disparity between affluent and underserved communities is mind blowing. And as a graduate student who has had the privilege of being the product of fantastic education and parents who could help me with my homework, I became a tutor for Learn to Be so that I could try and provide all kids with that same innate mindset and love for learning that my parents instilled in me.

“Learn to Be builds the dire bridge between people and the exponential growth of technology.”

A few months ago Bill and Melinda Gates published a CNN article where they set their bets for 2030. One of their bets was as following:

“As high-speed cell networks grow and smartphones become as cheap as today’s voice-only phones, online education will flourish“

They followed up by saying that kids will be able to learn numbers and letters from smartphones and that software will be able to tell if a student is having trouble learning and adjust to his/her pace. But that software, of course, can never replace teachers. They added that teachers could upload videos online to help students learn. Videos are fantastic tools (I used MIT courseware all throughout college) but I can’t help but laugh at the idea of telling a struggling teenager who has lost faith in their ability to learn to spend their afternoons watching math videos. Learn to Be builds the dire bridge between people and the exponential growth of technology. I am able to talk to my students face-to-face, understand why they are struggling in school, and personalize my teaching plan to their needs. And the best part about it is that ANYONE can do this. My once struggling sister, now entering high school, is a Learn to Be tutor herself, helping a young homeless 6th grader with division. There are a little over 4,000 colleges in the US, which enroll about 21 million students. The average American spends about 280 minutes on Facebook a week. It takes 60 minutes a week to help out a student. Our potential is so enormous that, Bill and Melinda Gates (I am talking to you), this is how we make online education flourish. It’s not going to be the latest app or the videos posted by teachers, it’s going to be the dedication of a generation of people determined to provide individual personalized attention to underserved students around the nation.

Written by Natasha Batalha.