Providing a quality educational experience is hard anywhere. It’s especially hard in the geographic expanses of rural Alaska.

In this WorkSpace Today Q&A we speak with Sheryl Soleto. Sheryl has spent decades in education, and is recognized as an expert in the practical application of video technology for distance learning. In recent years, she has increasingly focused on using video to support STEM education. She has also become a proponent of the Maker Movement, which is making a resurgence in many secondary school curricula.


Thank you for joining WorkSpace Today. Please share a bit of background about yourself.

I am a retired classroom teacher with 31 years of experience in the classroom.  Three years ago I served as an Einstein Fellow in Washington, D.C. at the National Science Foundation for 11 months.  I provided a classroom teacher’s perspective or “wisdom of practice” as it is called, and in the process I gained a larger perspective of education. It felt like I drinking from a fire hose of professional development, and was an amazing opportunity.  There were 27 teachers from around the country who did the fellowship together that year.

Today I mainly travel around the state of Alaska and serve Alaskan villages and other areas through distance education and face to face visits promoting STEM and Maker Education.  I am like a traveling Ms. Frizzle, but I use a bush plane and a Polycom unit instead of a magic bus!

In your teaching career, how has video helped address the challenges of education in very rural areas? 

Video has made some amazing opportunities available to me as a teacher and also to my students.  Being able to videoconference with an expert across the expanse of many miles has been amazing.  One of our favorite video-conferences was with David Gallo at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute.  He has an amazing Ted Talk and I have had the opportunity to meet him and hear him speak in person. It was fantastic, and my students all wanted to be oceanographers or marine biologists after hearing him.

I also did an exchange with a Tasmanian classroom and our classroom was paired up with them and we wrote a story together with a polar science backdrop.  It involved online collaborations as well as Skype sessions.  Being able to see our partners via computer video was incredible for all of us.

When I assisted the Joint Science Education Project (JSEP), we took high-school students from the United States, Greenland, and Denmark to Greenland for three weeks for field science and ice-sheet studies. We used video-conferencing to bring in specialists from all over the world to talk to the students about the research projects they were seeing and also studying.  It was the only way they would have actually gotten to meet the scientists who were designing the research that was happening.

The students were able to work directly with the grad students that were conducting the studies and see how to do the fieldwork, and it was powerful for them to ask the researchers about what they were hoping to find out and why it was important to know.

How do you define the Maker Movement, and why has it become so prominent?

I believe the Maker Movement is a resurgence of what our parents or grandparents experienced through necessity if they grew up in rural America.  They didn’t just buy something new when something broke – they fixed it through tinkering and mechanical ingenuity.  I think that has not been something our young people have necessarily been able to do, and this is giving opportunities for that to flourish in a collaborative spirit and through educational venues across the country. And just like in traditional educational settings, video can extend the reach and power of these collaborations.

Maker Education is also making its way into classrooms and across curricular areas, which is exciting.  When you think about it, we are all Makers, we have had experiences with a relative or a friend – cooking, building, fixing, and creating.  It is great to reminisce, and remind people about those times.  They realize that yes – they are indeed makers.

You recently led a distance learning exercise focused on STEM skills. Please tell us about that.

I presented at the Alaska Society for Technology in Education Conference. Polycom provided technical support for my presentation, which I greatly appreciated. We used their equipment to hook up to a fifth grade elementary classroom, so they came in virtually and did the Maker Activity with us.

The fifth-graders were assisted by the Kenai High School students, who were actually on site in the elementary classroom. These high school students were very familiar with learning using Polycom technology; they met with me virtually ahead of time and we went through the activity.  They served as mentors for the elementary students in their classroom while I instructed from the conference in Anchorage and also shared the material with 25 teachers at the same time.

Teachers could see the student engagement and empowerment while they were tinkering with the same materials.  It made for a powerful endorsement for implementing Maker education into their schools and it gave them an example of what is possible through distance education.  It would be an awesome next step to coordinate this between two schools and share with each other what students are able to create – a virtual Maker Faire!

What things need to happen for distance learning to become more prevalent?

I think the technology needs to be less daunting to set up, and teachers need to be trained in schools.  Luckily I had the Polycom staff to help me, or I would have been more nervous about that aspect of the conference.  I have a unit at my house and use it to connect with students across the country.  I have the zoom preset so that I can hit a button and it zooms to a close-up of my hands, or zooms to a comfortable distance showing my face, so I can just be speaking to them.

It is so helpful to have that set up ahead of time and then it is seamless switching between the views so that the students on the other end can really just naturally see what they need to be looking at.

The price of the technology has come down, but is still a factor, especially when people can Skype and use other applications to meet virtually.  But the beauty is the quality, the zoom of the camera, and the bandwidth that is dedicated to the video-conferencing with the Polycom technology. Distance education has extended my outreach significantly and reduced my travel costs to remote sites.  I do that as often as I can, but this is a vehicle for sharing Maker Education and connecting Makers across the planet!

Anything else to add?

Thank you for the opportunity to talk about this.  If you get a chance toward the end of May, the Maker Faire in San Mateo, California is a fantastic place to get inspired.  There will be over 800 Maker Booths with people making!  It should be incredible and worth the trip!  There are also regional Maker Faires that are excellent events as well.  See what is in your area or find resources online and continue making!