Discover Create Advance: Karl WendtBy Jill Anderson
As a child, Ed.L.D. candidate Karl Wendt struggled with focus and motivation in the classroom. It wasn’t until his father encouraged and supported him in science competitions that he discovered own desire to learn and succeed.
“If I hadn’t done well in science competitions as a youth then I wouldn’t be here,” Wendt says, crediting the experience for propelling him to become an educator and apply to Harvard.
That motivation to compete has certainly stuck with Wendt. He recently took first place in the prestigious Yale Education Leadership Conference Business Plan competition for his Discover Create Advance (DCA) – a web-based solution that makes engaging project-based learning possible for all STEM teachers and students. Wendt’s DCA also received honors at the Harvard BRIDGE Competition in 2011, and gained the support of Stonework Capital, which now advises on the project.
Many years ago Wendt made a conscious choice to walk away from a successful career as a product designer. Though some questioned his leaving, Wendt knew he had something to offer in the classroom. “I wanted to redesign the classroom,” he says.
After earning a master’s in education at Vanderbilt, he began teaching applied physics at High Tech High in San Diego. At first, the drastic shift from days spent designing household products for Maytag to teaching was tough. “The first year, I struggled,” he admits. “I didn’t really know how to inspire the students; it was really frustrating.”
Like many new teachers, Wendt contemplated quitting but, with a friend’s encouragement, he stuck with it. Wendt began thinking about his own learning experience and decided to shift his approach, focusing more on motivating students through project-based learning. At the time, he had unknowingly started to develop the teaching and learning concepts that would become Discover Create Advance.
Ultimately, his goal was to make a difference in the lives of students, especially the ones who did not think they were any good at school. He also wanted to increase the numbers of students entering STEM fields. As Wendt explains, there is a demand for STEM graduates, but the U.S. is lagging behind in the quality of math and science instruction and fewer students are pursuing careers in fields like engineering.
Wendt focused his energy on creating an environment conducive to learning and giving his students a chance to explore sophisticated concepts. He partnered with organizations and devoted community mentors to build meaningful learning experiences for the students. After three years, High Tech High Media Arts saw a 400 percent increase in students declaring STEM majors. Wendt wondered whether it could be scaled up.
The thought of expanding the ideas behind DCA is what brought Wendt to HGSE and particularly the newly-developed Doctor of Education Leadership Program.
“The goal of the program is to transform the sector and that’s why I came here,” he says. “Harvard and the Ed.L.D. nurture so many different approaches because the problem is too complex for just one solution.”
During his time at HGSE, Wendt says he has appreciated the opportunities to take courses at other schools. He has sought advice from faculty across the university on DCA.
The third and final year of the Ed.L.D. Program features a residency at a leading education organization. Wendt’s residency will be at Khan Academy, a nonprofit organization that offers educational resources online to students, teachers, and educators. Wendt will work specifically on hands-on learning.
“We have to create an ecosystem of applied learning and provide rigorous content in such a way it can be accessed by everyone,” he says.