IN NOVEMBER, SCIENTISTS BASED at the Caribbean Research and Management of Biodiversity (CARMABI) station in Curaçao spent five days broadcasting interactive live lessons directly into classrooms in 29 different countries.
Reaching nearly 23,000 students, the series was just one of many engaging programs produced by Irina Prentice ’94 and the team at Encounter Edu, a London-based education agency using innovative teaching methods to help students learn about pressing environmental issues through the use of tech in the classroom.
Raised in Paris as the child of two American artists, Prentice developed a global mindset early on. “Going to French and bilingual schools, my siblings and I became bicultural,” she recalls. “I became aware of the concept of pluralism in society, which allowed me to see how a single event could be interpreted differently depending on the individual and his or her background.”
At Taft, Prentice applied this broad worldview to her studies and worked with faculty members to develop her own programs of study. “Lance Odden, head of school at the time, was an extraordinary mentor. He not only understood my American roots, but also my biculturalism,” she says. “The school allowed me to embark on a more individual way of learning. For example, I was able do an independent study project, developing an English literature class with a reading list focused on the journey of identity through travel and exploration.”
Prentice also fostered a love of the environment during these years, helped by taking her education out of the classroom. “I was introduced to environmental science while at Chewonki,” she says of the formative semester that she spent at the rural outdoor-focused school in Maine. “Taft also allowed me to take a 75-day journey through the Patagonia wilderness on an expedition in Chile with the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) the following year.”
After such impactful educational experiences, it’s no surprise that, 20 years later, Prentice would join an organization seeking to revolutionize the way that students around the globe learn about environmental challenges facing the planet.
At Encounter Edu, Prentice and the team are guided by the unofficial motto of “bringing the far away nearby for students to build critical thinking skills, practice ‘working scientifically,’ and develop environmental stewardship.” To achieve this, they adapt current research into resources aligned to the curriculum to help teachers broaden the scope of their classroom teaching. The resources include in-depth schemes of work made up of hundreds of lesson plans, student sheets, online activities, bite-size multimedia and 360 VR content, and professional development opportunities for educators—all offered free of charge.
Much of the work that they do looks at marine ecosystems. “Our planet is 70 percent ocean, but our education system focuses predominantly on the terrestrial world,” Prentice notes. “By omitting the oceans, we’re giving students only a partial understanding of our planet and the vital connections among all the ecosystems.”
One of the most exciting programs that Encounter Edu curates is a series of Live Lessons—live video-links with the world’s leading scientists, some of whom are a part of active scientific explorations. “We’ve been able to connect students directly with researchers working in the field,” Prentice explains, “whether to those studying microplastics in the Arctic, coral reefs adaption and restoration in the Caribbean, or exploring the deep ocean on board a submarine expedition in the Indian Ocean. And they can ask questions in real time.”
In addition to running communications, partnerships, and outreach for Encounter Edu, Prentice works closely with the home office team in London to ensure that each Live Lesson goes off without a hitch.
“We have teams in two locations— one in London and one in the field,” she says. “I oversee and support the London team, working with the teachers to pass on student questions to the field team, to troubleshoot technical problems teachers might have. I also monitor the quality of the broadcasts, coordinating with the production side if problems arise. Ultimately, our goal is to make the Lives as smooth and as engaging as possible for everyone involved, no matter how remote the live link is.”
The results of this innovative approach speak for themselves. Already, Encounter Edu has reached more than 9.8 million students in more than 4,000 schools across 96 countries. Prentice is incredibly optimistic not only for the future of her organization but also for the future of education as a whole.
“This is the way that education is going,” she says. “Applying what these students are learning against current case studies makes the education process much more engaging and more relevant—for everyone!”
—Christopher Browner ’12