Maker, Designer, Tinkerer, and… Full-Time Student

How some students are using nontraditional school to redefining their learning experience

Imagine a bustling convention center, filled with buzzes, whirs, and overlapping voices. It’s busy. It’s tense. Things are breaking. But for the students at such robotics competitions, it’s mostly fun. 

In fact, many students are challenging the traditional image of what being a “student” looks like. For some of those students, the flexibility within their academic programs has provided them the opportunity to apply what they learn in settings that are meaningful–or just plain fun–for them. 

With more schooling options available today than ever, and the increasing number of kids looking for a more fulfilling learning experience, being a student can mean something different to everybody. One school, My Tech High, offers a flexible, nontraditional school experience for those who demand more out of their learning experience.

Below, we’ll look at what some of those stories look like.

Gerardo: “Maker, designer and tinkerer” – Age 13

Gerardo has always been curious about why things work the way they do, explains his father. He’s always shown an interest in anything mechanical, and how he can take a creative approach.

This fierce curiosity has served him well.

In 2014, Gerardo showcased his photography at a library exhibit, where he says he “sold lots of pictures.” He then bought his first iMac, and donated some of his photography to charity for children with cancer.

He’s since pursued his passion for the intersection between mechanics and art. He now uses 3D printing technology to build and print different things like iPhone cases.

Gerardo credits his parents and flexible school program for support. That support is reinforced by routine and expectations. His mother says she likes the flexibility of the program and the opportunity it gives him to take classes that he’s interested in, “because they get to choose how they spend their time.” She credits the support of the school, too, saying that teachers and other parents are just an email away.

Looking forward, Gerardo says he’s most excited for his entrepreneur class. At just 13 years old, he’s ready to start learning how to run a business so that he can make money doing exactly what he loves.

Olivia: Entrepreneur, business owner – Age 16

Olivia has a busy schedule. She runs her own business breeding non-shedding dogs for families with allergies. She also makes time to complete a full schedule of coursework and communicate with her teachers and mentors. Oh, and she’s 16 years old.

Speaking with a calm confidence beyond her years, Olivia speaks to the ways her flexible learning program has improved all aspects of her life.

Working for herself has helped her manage her social anxiety and build her confidence by creating a solution that works for her. Her passion for what she does–working with animals–helps motivate her to balance work and school. 

Entrepreneurship demands a lot of her time. Not only the business aspect, but the demands of caring for a new litter. Sometimes this care means having to stay up for 24 hours. Attending a school with traditional hours simply would not be practical for her.

She adds, “If it’s midnight and I want to read a book, or get [coursework] done,” her distance learning program allows her the flexibility to do that.

She credits her nontraditional schooling program for helping her grow her love of learning, rather than it being a “forced passion,” as she calls it.

She credits the guidance and feedback she receives from her program in helping her feel supported in her own passions.

“I see so many people unhappy with their jobs,” says Olivia. “It’s important to do what you love, and to find people also doing that who will help lift you up instead of push you down.”

Thygerson Family: Robotics, Travel & Entrepreneurship – Ages 11, 14, 17, 19

In the Thygerson family, learning is taken seriously. But for this family, taking learning seriously looks a bit more… fun. 

Take it from son Tanner, 17, who competes in robotics competitions along with his siblings.

“Robotics is a ton of fun, first of all.” 

Jakob, 19, agrees. “It teaches skills not just technically related, but you’re working with professional engineers through this program.” And with the flexibility to compete in robotics, they’ve learned a lot of entrepreneurial lessons, as well. 

“It’s kind of like starting a small business,” says their mother, Adrianne Thygerson. 

“They’ve learned how to work with groups, they’ve learned how to pitch to venture capitalists. The public speaking skills…” she says. “I think if you could just bottle that hands-on learning that that program provides, you can really just do anything you want to in your life.”

And then, there’s traveling. The Thygerson family takes travel seriously, too. After all, it’s another way of learning for them.

“The things that you learn when you travel are not in textbooks,” says Adrianne. “They’re things that you experience and see firsthand, and that’s a totally different experience than just reading about it in a textbook.”

Jakob credits his parents for teaching him that learning is everywhere, and his flexible school program for allowing space for more learning opportunities. And in those opportunities, “I was able to connect those learning experiences to what I was already doing.”

For McKinley, 14, homeschooling has provided her a more insightful understanding of learning. 

“Being homeschooled my whole life helped me see that [learning] is not just school for seven hours,” she says. “It’s every day and everywhere you go.”

And while the kids have all credited their mother for their love of learning in any form, that lesson seems to have extended to mom, as well. 

“I thought that I loved learning,” she says, “but I don’t think that I really knew how to learn until I started homeschooling my kids.”