Vermont Adds a New State Motto in Latin

By Alessandria Schumacher

This June, Peter Jensen, the Foundations of Engineering and Architecture Instructor at the Hannaford Career Center, will be retiring. After working eight years in his current position at the center, and forty years overall in the Middlebury education system, Jensen and his career of dedicated work deserve to be celebrated.

After receiving his teaching degree in 1971, Jensen joined the army and was an officer for three years. When his tour was over, however, Jensen immediately went into the field of teaching.

“I left my career as an officer because I really had a passion for teaching,” Jensen explained.

Once he transitioned into the education sector, Jensen was immediately drawn to STEM programs. “Right from the beginning, I got into programs that allowed kids to make things … the concept was to be creative and innovative,” Jensen said.

Throughout his career, Jensen felt firmly rooted in his role as an instructor. “My job as an instructor,” Jensen said, “I have always felt is to essentially be the person who creates the environment in which learning can take place.”

Jensen continued: “If I structure the units carefully enough, and introduce them clearly enough, then the students have an opportunity to be encouraged and the desire to be innovative.”

When asked how his style of teaching developed over his career, Jensen said, “I think it has been honed over time.”

Jensen was sure to make clear, however, that his fundamentals remained constant. “I always had a passion to interact with young people, to allow them the freedom to expand and grow, to develop in whatever was their passion,” he said.

In addition, Jensen believes that his core responsibility is to defy the stereotype that the subjects of architecture and engineering are rigid. “I see my job,” Jensen explained, “as connecting creativity within those rigid subjects.” For example, Jensen referenced the groundbreaking work of Bjarke Engels as the level of originality he encourages his students to strive for. When talking about Engel’s work, Jensen said, “Now that’s innovation. That’s the freedom to be creative. That’s the change that the world needs.”

At the Hannaford Career Center, a state-funded public education center that offers students the opportunity to be engaged in learning at a broader context, the general focus is to present students with a variety of opportunities to expand their interest in technical skills, the workplace and future educational opportunities.

Jensen advises that the career center is “a wonderful opportunity to discover through a year or semester-long program whether or not an interest of yours is strong enough to continue into the future.”

“With the incredible cost of post-high school education now presented to a lot of these kids,” Jensen continued, “using their time in high school to make some discovery is really valuable.”

Jensen’s course, which is a semester-long course that splits the time evenly between engineering and architecture, is built around five basic concepts: investigate, innovate, evaluate, fabricate and communicate, which are applied to a variety of specific tasks and activities.

“Whether you are designing a house, or a new iPad … I use the same basic elements, so in essence a lot of my assignments are mini tasks, which give students the opportunity to be creative,” he said.

In his curriculum, Jensen places a strong emphasis on making his content engaging.

“One of the precepts I believe very important for kids nowadays,” Jensen explained, “is to be excited about what they are doing and if a kid is adventurous, than they are going to be less likely to be fearful of failure.”

Jensen makes his goal therefore to encourage and foster his students to “get into the software, get into their personal motivation as to what they’d like to create, and be creative with that as their vehicle.”

As a facilitator of such creativity, Jensen relayed incidents where some students needed a little extra encouragement.

“I had one student, let’s call him Bill, who was very nervous about the software. He did not have much experience with computers, and this was in the engineering phase of the course,” Jensen said. “I helped him gain familiarity with the software, and asked him what he was interested in. He was interested in pool. So with my help he went from building a pool stick, to a set of balls, to a rack to put the balls into, and before he knew it, Bill had built an entire pool set.”

Reflecting on this experience, Jensen revealed that “to see a student, who started in a relatively timid way, without a lot of self-confidence, grow into an understanding of his ability, and feel his ability his expanding within him, allowing him to take more risk, and to try different things, that’s one of the joys of teaching.”

Having dedicated his life to public education and parenting four children, three of which went to four year college institutions, and one who attended a two year automotive school, Jensen is in a unique position to comment on the value of a liberal arts education in comparison to a career-oriented program.

First, Jensen was clear to address some of the stigmas associated with the value of technical schools in this debate. “Perhaps part of an academic stigma is that a technical school is for students that won’t be doing too much after school. That’s not true at all. In fact, it’s anything but that.”

To further emphasize his value of technical schools, Jensen explained that he had all four of his children take his class at the Hannaford Center, knowing that three of them would continue onto a four-year college institution.

Next, Jensen began to distinguish the different skills each type of education provides. Jensen categorizes technical schools as those that provide a student with “a hard skill, or a hard resume.” In comparison, Jensen views the liberal arts education as the development of “the soft skills.”

Ultimately, Jensen believes that the two sectors of education work best when incorporated together. “In other words,” Jensen continued, “I can be a brilliant architect, and be hired by one of the most wonderful firms in New York City. If I don’t have the ability to connect with people in a team setting, communicate effectively, compromise, take criticism…those skills will force me to lose my job.”

One of Jensen’s four children attended Middlebury College, and he praised the establishment. “Middlebury College is a fantastic institution. Through my own son’s experience, and my awareness of the College, I’ve come to understand that oftentimes the first degree that we choose is not the last degree. And the first job that we enter, is by no means our final job, or a big extensive career,” Jensen said.

“The experience that you have at Middlebury College is more about some intrinsic things that occur within you, that give you guidance and maturity, that help you to develop as a person that then can be more successfully applied to the passion, and the direction you want to take your life,” Jensen continued.

He also made sure not to undervalue those skills. “If you can gain a feeling and understanding about yourself, a real candid awareness about who you are, and develop the ability to take risks and to get out there and discover, then maybe that degree has served you well.”

With his distinguished career beginning to enter the rearview mirror, Jensen makes it clear that the most rewarding part of his career has been working with young people. “Young people are very interesting. They’re dynamic, they’re full of effort and energy…they are the entire reason I came into education in the first place.”

Jensen then recalled an interaction with his father, a science and chemistry teacher in a barrio school in Arizona, that fully encapsulates the heightened sense of importance he places on the career of teaching. The summer before his father died, Jenson was building a rather large house. In response to his father lamenting that he had never done anything as creative as building a house, Jensen responded, “‘Wait a minute. How many years did you teach? Dad, you encountered, inspired, encouraged thousands of young kids, haven’t you?’ And he began to think back, and I said, ‘What is more powerful than that?’ One kid is way more powerful than a room in a house, than the entire house structure.”

When asked if there is any downside to his job, Jensen responded, “You’re asking the wrong guy. I have enjoyed my career so much. I don’t think there is a down-side for me.”

With a smile on his face, Jensen concluded, “I am enjoying it as much today as I did forty years ago when I started, just out of the service.”