From Pupils to PolyBots: My transition from the classroom

All my life I have been an educator. Up until last year, I have spent every spare moment writing lesson plans, grading papers, and working with parents and students to create meaningful learning experiences. I loved being a teacher, and to this day nowhere feels like home to me quite like being in the front of a 3rd grade classroom.

Student observing a plant grown in the PolyBot.

But as I became more aware of the struggles of my students, my love for teaching was outweighed by my frustration with the current state of our education system. I grew tired of watching uninformed policies trickle down to affect the neediest of students, keeping them down and denying them the quality education they deserve. Inspired to make a change, I left teaching to pursue a masters degree where I learned to use research and analysis to navigate the challenges facing education today. Upon graduation, I discovered Food + Future and decided that Poly was an amazing platform where I could use these skills to be the voice for struggling schools and advocate for their needs in science education. I had never worked outside of the public school setting before, and had no idea what to expect when I took the leap to start new as a Director of Research at Food + Future.

My first week at Food + Future was strange. I shared my ideas on a post-it notes instead of on a SmartBoard. No one gave me a schedule to follow or standards to address. I could use the restroom whenever I wanted — a luxury most teachers aren’t afforded. The ambiguity and freedom of my new role at Food + Future was shocking, but also liberating as it allowed me to escape from institutional barriers and use my “superpowers” to influence real change.

Members of the Food + Future team in front of the White House at SXSL.

Working at Food + Future has opened many doors for me, and given me many opportunities I never could have imagined. It brought me to the White House South Lawn to present in front of thousands of people at SXSL. It brought me to Stone Barns where I witnessed ecologically sound agriculture and learned that the way food is grown is just as important as how it is prepared. Food + Future enables me to talk to people across the world that inspire me on a daily basis from activists to innovators to 12 year old kids. And while each day I learn something new and am inspired by the people I meet and the things they are doing, there are many days where my beliefs are challenged to the core.

In my role as Director of Research at Poly, I talk to teachers, students, and principals about their experience with the PolyBot and use these findings to ensure every decision our team makes is grounded in reality and is educationally sound. As our team engages with the community to explore new ideas, I get to meet a lot of people doing incredible things in food and education. We “nerd out” about new technologies and dream idealistically about how we can change the world.

But I also interact with a lot of teachers, principals, and kids who are isolated from that innovation due to outdated policies, constricting budgets, and institutional constraints. Quite often, the students missing out on these educational opportunities are ones that attend schools that lack the resources and flexibility to invest in innovation. The quality of education a student receives should not be determined by their zip code or socioeconomic status. We must find ways to make these new and exciting technologies more accessible to all students to ensure a better future for our society.

This extends beyond education. This is also about food.

At Food + Future, we believe that people know less about their food today than at any other time in history. Of course we can attribute this to a variety of causes, such as the rise in food fraud due to pricing pressure, the globalization of the food supply chain, the rise of processed foods, and the dependence on social media as a source of truth; but this is also a consequence of a poorly educated generation. In order to make a lasting impact on food, we must prepare and inspire future generations to handle the complexity of our food system. We need to create a generation of more educated people who demand transparency and have the ability to create new technology to ensure that our food is safe and nutritious. Now more than ever, we need to make sure that all members of society understand the impact their food choices make on the world we live in, from the environment to human welfare and labor practices, to every major social problem we face today. This knowledge is not just for the students that attend elite schools with deep pockets. All people deserve to know the truth about the food they eat, and the future of our world depends on their ability to apply this knowledge constructively.

Though I am frustrated by the discrepancies in education, I am inspired to change them in the future of food education. As a classroom teacher, I could fight the inequities of society by being the best teacher, role model, counselor, and guardian that I could be for the students I served. This may be the most important battle in education, and it occurs everyday in classrooms across the country led by educators empowered to make a change.

And while this battle is critical, it is often obstructed by political barriers and societal constraints. Now that I am outside the classroom, I will use my newfound flexibility and resources to continue to challenge the inequities of our society in food and in education. Regardless of what we do at Food + Future, it means nothing unless we are able to improve the food system for all members of society, and I’m honored to have the opportunity to contribute to this effort in classrooms across the world.