HDR Foundation Grant: Minnesota Literacy Council

Foundation of a Community

HDR Employee by Day, Monica Peterson Moonlights as Volunteer Educator

Teaching can be a very difficult profession. It takes patience, careful lesson planning, occasional odd hours and the ability to motivate.

For Environmental Scientist Monica Peterson, those factors are escalated. Peterson, who works out of HDR's Minneapolis office, has volunteered for 3 1/2 years at the Minnesota Literacy Council, which was recently selected for a $15,000 grant by the HDR Foundation. She teaches a general science class as part of a curriculum to help adults prepare for the GED exam. These classes are offered in areas of the city where the racial and economic disparities are at their worst.

Peterson is motivated to help educate adults in her community, not only to help individuals, but to help society as a whole.

"You can see in the news what happens when communities suffer and we become divided," she said. "I personally believe that education is the key to alleviating those issues. There's a sense of empowerment and confidence that the people of these low-income communities get with education and this has a ripple effect.

"Parents can use education to get a better job or take vocational classes, they can better help their children with homework, they build a confidence in themselves from a sense of accomplishment that most never had. All these things work to build a foundation for a healthier community and better society."

The HDR Foundation's grant will be used to purchase a new classroom set of 31 Chromebook laptops, two digital projectors and two media carts, giving the students much-needed access to technology that will help their learning experiences and prepare them for a technology-centered world.

The Minnesota Literacy Council's programs are free and are offered throughout the state. Volunteering is extremely rewarding, Peterson said, but it does come with its fair share of challenges.

It takes patience.

Half to three-quarters of Peterson's students are English as a second language (or ESL), which can make it more difficult to understand and keep up with lessons for both the teacher and the student. Her classrooms have Somalian, Hmong, Hispanic and Middle Eastern students in additional to the traditional high school drop-out.

"We have quite a diversity of students from around the world who have very different backgrounds that we must tailor our teaching styles to," she said. "It is not a normal classroom setting, that's for sure. Even if English is your first language, let alone a second language, science uses a lot of unfamiliar and difficult terms and concepts."

It takes careful lesson planning.

The GED exam can be taken anytime, so Peterson's students can take the test and pass out of her science class or join whenever they wish. Additionally, many of her students have odd-hour jobs and children that take up their time, so classes are easy (and tempting) to deprioritized. Some rely on public transportation or getting rides to class, which can also make attendance difficult.

"Just about every week I lose students and gain others," she said. "What a lot of people don't realize the biggest problem for my lectures is that each lesson has to be a stand-alone lesson. If I'm lecturing on Newton's laws one week, I have to assume that next week's students probably won't know it. The same goes for experiments – they all have to fit into a two-hour class time."

It takes occasional odd hours.

It's been over four years since Peterson started working at HDR. Prior to that, she worked two jobs – meaning she didn't have much free time.

"When I started at HDR and I dropped my weekend job, I found myself with free time I had never really had before," she said. "Previously, I had done college admissions and financial aid at a non-traditional school and I missed helping that demographic. So, I took my passion for that and looked into some volunteer opportunities in the area, and that's how I landed teaching GED science."

Because the GED test has changed, the Minnesota Literacy Council and Peterson have had to adjust their lesson plans – something she helps with on her own time.

"If students do a full circuit, it doesn't mean they are ready for the GED," she said. "I have students who have come for a year but are still not at the point where they are ready. They could be close or they may need several more years of classroom lessons. On the other hand, some students I have for three weeks that take the test and pass right away."

As of now, the lesson plans last about six months then repeat, but attendance is so volatile, even if a student was there six months prior, he or she may not have understood or may not remember the material.

It takes the ability to motivate.

Some of her students need the classroom to learn the material, while other students were formally educated at schools outside of the United States. For the latter, their credits may not transfer or their formal education may not be recognized as equivalent, so they have to take the GED to have an accredited form of education in the U.S.

For the students that really need the help, Peterson has to do her best to inspire them to keep coming back. Part of that motivation comes from having the materials to help teach and enhance the classroom experience for better learning. That's where the HDR Foundation has been able to help.

"Technology is important for GED students because many of them do not have access or the education to use it regularly like we do," Peterson said. "Minnesota Literacy Council supplies computers for classroom use, plus some of the programs we use are extremely beneficial to helping my students learn, like English-learning programs."

In the end, Peterson is out to help her community, which is the No. 1 goal of the HDR Foundation. She does this through education.

"It sounds cheesy," she said, "but I really do get more from these students than they get from me."