The 'Woj' Joins Next-Gen Science Startup, Planet3
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The 'Woj' Joins Next-Gen Science Startup, Planet3

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The Wojcicki clan (from left to right): Janet, Anne, Stan, Esther, Susan / Courtesy of Esther Wojcicki

Lots of students recount how a favorite teacher helped them find a job. More surprising is when a student--even a former student--nudges a teacher to a new job.

Then again, just about everything that Palo Alto High School teacher and author Esther Wojcicki does these days comes with a dose of surprise.

Wojcicki (pronounced wo-JIT-ski) has spent more than 30 years teaching high school journalism at Palo Alto High School. And no, she’s not leaving anytime soon.

But now, Wojcicki is adding another commitment to her to-do list: She has just signed on as Chief Learning Officer at the Washington, DC startup, Planet3—a job that she reckons will take about 30 percent of her time.

Wojcicki, or “Woj” to her students, is a big name in Silicon Valley. She’s a legendary teacher: She began teaching journalism at Palo Alto High School in 1984, growing the program from about 20 students to more than 500 involved in the five student-run media outlets. She was named California Teacher of the Year in 2002 and has received a pack of other teaching and journalism awards. She’s raised successful daughters, too: Susan Wojcicki is Chief Executive of YouTube; Janet Wojcicki is a Fulbright-winning anthropologist who speaks several African dialects and Anne is chief executive and cofounder of genetics company, 23andMe. Google got started, literally, in Susan’s garage and Anne was formerly married to Google cofounder, Sergey Brin.

For the record, even as Wojcicki signs up for Planet3, she's got plenty of other activities. Teaching, she says, will continue to be her top priority. But there's also her book, Moonshots in Education: Launching Blended Learning in the Classroom, published in 2015 and just out in Spanish and a whirlwind round-the-world travel schedule to spread the message. Wojcicki also chaired the board of Creative Commons for several years, and there still four or five companies that regularly call her for advice. (Editor’s note: Among others, Wojcicki also advises EdSurge.)

And then there’s what she’s really passionate about: Giving kids about 20 percent of their school time to work on projects of their choice. “You know, coding, gardening, building games—anything that’s educational. We’re calling it ‘Moonshot Mondays.’ At least that’s what my students started calling it.... But 20 percent time could be one hour a day, one day a week. There are a lot of different methods to do this.”

That description—and more—comes out in single breath. “I have a high energy level,” she adds, almost apologetic. “I wrote that book from 10:00 pm to midnight. I do a lot of stuff in the evening. And then I get up early.”

Lots of people involved with Palo Alto High School, or “Paly,” get up early. Located across the road from Stanford University, the public school is highly ranked and yet often critiqued as a boiler room of achievement anxiety. Last year, Paly sister school, Gunn High School and a private school in Palo Alto were wracked by four student suicides.

Wojcicki energetically advocates projects over standardized tests and grades. “You have to get students engaged and give them an opportunity to apply some of the stuff they’re learning during the 80 percent of the school day,” she says.

Too much of school is one way—from the teacher to the student, she contends: “We’re still lecturing. We’re still teaching to the test. Most people say this isn’t learning, it’s memorizing. But if you have a chance to apply what you know, it will make a huge impact. And that’s what I’m pushing.”

Wojcicki is also a fan of technology—when used to support students. Her book, Moonshot, is jammed with examples of schools using technology.

And so when former Paly student, Albert Yu-Min Lin, who earned his PhD in materials science, dropped by the high school for a visit, Wojcicki reveled in hearing about his passion for science. “I’ve always been interested in science,” she declares. Her husband is an award-winning physicist at Stanford University. Lin talked about how he was also working with a fledgling company, Planet3, which describes itself as an “exploration-based learning company.” Or put another way: the company plans to fuse game-based narratives, real-world data and Next Generation Science Standards to create science, technology, engineering, arts and math (STEAM) curriculum.

“And then Albert said we could make this into project-based learning and have a journalism element where kids can write about science and share it...and I became very interested in this,” Wojcicki says.

Planet3's splash page

This is no duct tape startup, however. Planet3 is largely funded and chaired by Rob Roy, an entrepreneur who hit it big when he started a company in 2000 called Switch, which runs SUPERNAP “eco” data centers, based in Nevada. The enormous data centers manage the bits and bytes for more than 1,000 companies including the likes of Intel, eBay and Fox Broadcasting, entirely powered by renewable energy.

According to the Switch site, "Rob Roy believes strongly in the principles of karma. He operates his personal and professional life with an understanding that by bringing good into the world, you will receive good in return.”

Accordingly, Roy teamed up with Tim Kelly, former president of the National Geographic Society and a long-time film producer, to start Planet3. Switch contributed $13 million to start Planet3, along with additional investments contributed by Kelly, Lin and other angel investors. Planet3 plans to pilot its curriculum beginning this fall with 25 schools in six Nevada districts, including Clark County.

As Chief Learning Officer, Wojcicki will be involved in building out Planet3's curriculum--and so will the teachers and students in Nevada. "The partnership between Planet3 and Nevada schools offers a unique opportunity for Clark County teachers and students to be active participants in developing the next generation of STEAM curriculum," said Clark County School District Superintendent Pat Skorkowsky in a statement.

“I never have to convince the audience how boring it is to listen to lectures seven hours a day,” Wojcicki says. “Everyone agrees that we should give students more control. The only question is how to do it.”

Editor's note: The story has been corrected to describe Rob Roy as chairman not CEO of Planet3. 

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