Sunday, July 21, 2024

Blending education and technology a goal for Wellman

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OLYMPIA - On the last Monday morning of the 2024 legislative session, Washington State Sen. Lisa Wellman’s office brimmed with sunlight, an early peek at spring, as she sipped tea from a white mug. 

Her office is full of her macro photography. As a creative outlet, Wellman likes to go to junkyards and photograph bolts and screws that have rusted. On her website, she calls this nature’s revenge of rust. It is a hobby inspired by her career in technology and an embrace of creativity.

“I think it's interesting to find beauty in unexpected places,” Wellman said. 

Although she seems at home in the Legislature, this Democrat from Mercer Island never planned a career in politics. 

Wellman said she always thought of herself as a corporate wife, supermom, and “hostess with the mostess.” Raising a family, she sewed all the drapes in her house, made a canopy bed, and was a Girl Scout leader. As a homemaker, she also frequently volunteered in her children’s schools and was referred to as a “room mother.”

One day, she told her husband that all she had heard from their kids was, “Hi Mom, bye Mom,” and that she was ready to get a job. Her husband worked in tech, and she became an assembly programmer until Apple eventually recruited her. 

“It was not cheek to be a geek,” Wellman joked. 

She worked in technology for 25 years, but her first job was as a public school kindergarten teacher. Much of her work during her eight years in the Senate lies at the intersection of education and technology. 

“I really think that we're in the midst of this transformation of the education system,” Wellman said. “As of this year, I can also tell you that it is the paramount duty of the state.”

Wellman said the state is not fully funding education. She is a proponent of keeping up with AI in the classroom so that when kids graduate, they will have what they need to thrive in a 21st-century digital economy. 

Wellman suggests that teachers can learn a lot by thinking critically about how students use AI. Teachers can understand their students' thinking patterns by checking what students search for and the questions they ask.

She highlights the increasing number of tech jobs, particularly in Washington, and emphasizes that failing to adapt would disadvantage children.

One of her bills a number of years ago re-created the Broadband Office service, which provided internet access to rural communities. 

“I can’t think of practically anything that I am not seeing that will not require us to have a very clear concept of what computers do and how they do it,” she said.

 

Wellman characterizes herself as a systems-oriented individual. She explained that her work during the legislative session was not just about one specific bill or priority for this session. Instead, she said all aspects of working together, much like how a computer functions smoothly, is what truly makes a difference.

This session, one bill about competency-based education was introduced but failed to pass. She said that is a shame. Competency-based education focuses on students mastering specific skills and knowledge at their own pace rather than progressing based on traditional grade levels or time spent in the classroom. She points to a wildly successful alternative high school in Issaquah that used a competency-based system.

“More and more kids want hands-on education,” Wellman said. And it's not new. I mean, it's the way humans have learned from the very beginning.”

She says books are what's new, and kids don’t want to read a book and take a test. They want experience-based learning. 

Wellman attended a conference in Finland a few years ago about Ed Tech and AI. She talked to teachers and principals visiting schools and went to a teacher preparatory college, and she found the preparatory college is constantly in communication with schools to see what their needs are. 

The teacher-preparation college can adapt and evolve to address the evolving needs of students. Through this process, they discovered a greater demand for specialized training in teaching children with special needs. 

She highlights March 2020 as a turning point when every child had access to a computer at home, and education moved online. She emphasized the importance for teachers to adapt to such changes. She said she believes this shift is mostly beneficial and will enable Washington children to remain in their home state and secure employment opportunities.

“No matter where in the world I have ever gone, I can tell you that I have never met a mother who did not want their children to get married and stay in the community,” Wellman said. “People would love to have their kids find jobs in the state of Washington, and more and more jobs are in tech.”

The Washington State Journal is a non-profit news website funded by the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association Foundation.

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