Students On Project-Based Learning

Sustainability Workshop graduate Stefon Gonzalez, 19, answers SpinEdu’s questions about his thoughts on education and project-based learning.

Last year, Gonzalzes  helped the Workshop, located in Philadelphia, PA, garner national recognition by leading a team of high school students that built hybrid racecars, outperforming those of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

1) Can you tell us a little about yourself and where you grew up?

I’m a 19-year-old Scorpio from West Philadelphia. I lived a pretty normal childhood. I have two brothers, one older (Anton) and one younger (Simeon), as well two older sisters (Stephanie and Tia).

2) What was middle school like?

I was all over the place. I spent 6th grade here in Philadelphia at Shaw Junior High. For 7th and 8th grade, I moved near the Poconos with my father. I went to Andrew G. Curtin Middle School. I really didn’t get into any after-school projects or extracurricular activities, but I did spend a good portion of my free time in the garage with my father. He was self employed, working on cars during the week.

3) What was high school like?

My high school days were pretty normal—for the most part. Up until my junior year, I went to West Philadelphia Automotive Academy. Simon launched The Sustainability Workshop my senior year, and I signed-up to attend. But I had all the typical high school courses—math, English, science, history. The main thing that set my public high school apart from others, though, was my mandatory “Automotive Technology” class. This class was awesome. Besides auto class, I also joined a drag-racing program called Morris Racing. This was also pretty amazing, and I got to experience what it’s like to be on the team of a professional National Hot Rod Association Drag Racer. I’m actually still on that team.

5) How do you feel about SATs and other Standardized tests?

Standardized testing can definitely be a challenge to some, and it can show what a student knows—but only to a certain extent. Everyone has a different skill set. Take me, for instance. I scored a 1,280 on the SAT. Does that mean I’m an average student? I think not. The same thing goes for lower-scoring students. Just because someone has a “below-average” score, that doesn’t mean that they’re “below average.” Who knows, that person could be an amazing public speaker, or have the best woodworking skills in the city. I really believe that there’s more than just one way to measure someone’s intelligence.

5) Can you tell us more about your experience with cars and Simon Hauger, co-founder of The Sustainability Workshop?

I met Simon the first or second week of my freshman year of high school. On my first day of high school, I heard about the West Philly EVX Team. I loved cars, so there was no question whether I would join. I attended the first team meeting and met Simon. But Simon also had strong feelings about project- based learning. So he left the school district and began work on starting his own school, The Sustainability WorkShop.

Before high school, I used to read magazines, watch nerdy car T.V. shows, and tinker on cars with my brother Anton. But to actually be on a team that built a car from the ground up and race it! That was a whole different story. This is why I loved going to the Workshop. It felt like family.

6) What did you think of your ability to learn in a traditional classroom setting?

I always knew that I didn’t learn best in a classroom—and I knew I wasn’t the only one either. I was in Algebra II one day, learning something difficult. I stayed after class to get extra help, and I found the courage to ask my teacher, “What type of person uses this math everyday in their line of work?” She didn’t have an answer for me.

A few weeks later, I asked Simon the same question. He would come to school to chat with me and other EVX students, even though he had left to start the Workshop. I said, “Mr. Hauger, this is what I’m learning in math class. Do you have any idea what person uses this in their everyday line of work?” He immediately answered me and said, “Sure, a math teacher does!” From that point on, I felt that the public school system needed restructuring. Every year, students are taught the same curriculum, and teachers teach the same way they did 100 years ago. Times have changed, and so has the way students learn.

6) What kinds of cars did your work on at the Workshop, and how did it feel to compete and race against the Massachusetts Institute of Technology?

I get mixed feelings when I think about the fact that we beat MIT. Being that I grew-up around fast, loud, gas­guzzling muscle cars, it’s almost in my blood to “hate and humiliate” the competition. But at the end of the day, if MIT came to us and asked for help, we would have helped them. That’s the whole idea behind “innovation through competition.”

During my entire high school career, we built and competed with three main cars, a 2008 Ford Focus, Factory 5 GTM, and EVLC (electric very light car). The Ford Focus started out as a hybrid, but it’s currently being converted to all-electric. The Factory 5 started out as a hybrid, and it’s currently running on 100% biodiesel, made from used fryer oil by one of our Workshop students. EVLC is our latest project, and it’s being built as an all-electric.

The two hybrids competed in the 2010 Progressive Automotive X­Prize competition. Around that time, we took the Ford Focus apart to rebuild as an all-electric, and we raced the GTM in the Green Grand Prix competition. We won that competition two years in a row. We also submitted a business plan for the EVLC to a great competition, the Spirit of Innovation Awards. We went to California, won that competition, and brought home $5K of seed money.

7) What are you doing now?

I’m in an apprenticeship program with SEPTA (Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority), the local public transportation company here in Philadelphia. It’s a three year program, after which time I’ll be a first-class bus mechanic. I’ll have the duty of servicing every system of the bus.

The Workshop has definitely prepared me for my life and chosen career, and that’s all thanks to Simon and his work at the Workshop.

I’m always happy and in a good mood. I’m very thankful for the people I have in my life, and the opportunities that have been handed to me. I love talking to people about what I do, why I do it, and I’m always willing to lend a helping hand to those who really want it.

My auto teacher always told me, “There’s no better feeling than doing what you love. If you do what you love for a living, you won’t consider it work.”

Interview transcript

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As a coach, history and journalism teacher at Brimmer and May, a wonderful independent school in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, I have the absolute best job in the world. I am thrilled to get up every morning to engage with interesting young people, and I'm equally fortunate to have such amazing colleagues and mentors. As the founder of Spin Education, I encourage you to check-in frequently and submit posts and lessons—all in an effort to better our practice as teachers.

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