Our approach to transforming education stems from our four pillars – community, balance, thinking, and empathy. Our pillars create our schools’ culture, and bring focus and purpose to all our programs.


We are a learning community. Careful planning and design of school culture enables us to rely on the strengths of each student and staff member. Students enter the school with the expectation to develop their leadership potential within and beyond our school.


We seek to continually put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and approach new ways of problem-solving. Every member of our community has unique perspectives, strengths, and struggles. We strive to adapt our approach to see the world from each of their points of view.


We challenge ourselves to dive deep into any idea to emerge with a strong understanding, as opposed to merely reciting facts. We believe in putting complex problems in the hands of inspired young people, setting the bar continually higher beyond what even they assume they can achieve.


We develop left-brained and right-brained thinkers, creativity alongside analysis. Exploring both macro and micro, we study the species and the ecosystem, the inflection of one note and the harmony of the whole orchestra. We find balance in perspective and our schools seek to always show both sides of a story.

It was a Tuesday in September, my last period of the day, and there was an opossum sitting in my classroom. After leaning in to get a better view, I looked down to my sketchbook, making sure to get the contour lines just right before I began shading. Charcoal rubbed against my fingers, coating them in a layer of black dust. Students around me laughed and made remarks about their sketches.

“My drawing looks a lot more like a large rat than an opossum,” commented the kid to my left. I leaned back and grinned, admiring his work.

“Still better than mine, which looks like a dinosaur” said a voice from the other end of the room. He turned his drawing outwards, displaying it to the class.

As I relate these stories of daily classroom activities to my friends from other schools, I receive incredulous looks, which I’ve grown accustomed to seeing as I talk about my school. What was I to expect? I’ve decided to ditch the traditional schooling system for an innovative, peculiar, and somewhat chaotic approach to education, the Science and Math Institute, or SAMI, located in Tacoma, Washington. When I inform people that my campus isn’t a school building and that it’s actually of a cluster of portable “buildings” inside a 702 acre public park, I get a lot of questions. Where’s your lunchroom? We don’t have one. What about lockers? Nope. Hallways? Yeah, we’re missing those too. What some might not realize is everything that my high school does have. We’re located inside Point Defiance Park, the second largest public park in the entire nation. Point Defiance contains a zoo and aquarium located within its borders, along with miles of vast old-growth forest, a system of interlocking trails to hike, a history museum, and a picturesque beach. These features make for a pretty unique high school campus.

We do things differently at SAMI. My days at school are spent looking through goggles and microscopes, loupes and camera lenses. Calculus class is located inside an aquarium, and Spanish, in the Rose Garden. And occasionally, I end up with an opossum in my Animal Life Drawing class (thankfully, it takes place at the zoo). I speak in units and measurements, in the Latin names of binomial nomenclature, and the Greek letters of Physics and Calculus. My hands carry calipers and inclinometers, along with GPS units and pH tests. Classes take place throughout the harsh wind and rainfall, I wear beat-up hiking boots, and a little-less than rainproof jacket, while writing in smeared, blotchy letters, on an also “less-than-rainproof” paper. I come home from school soaking wet, covered in mud, and endlessly happy.

Falling in love with SAMI was instant and effortless. After only the first few days of school, I was already convinced: if there was a “right way” to do education, this was it. School is captivating, challenging, and fascinating, all the things that education should be, but too often isn’t. With ample resources, I am allowed to learn recklessly, making mistakes as I progress. Asking questions as often as another person might breathe, I am vividly engrossed in what I am taught, and I soak up information like a sponge.

Despite all of the important lessons that my classes have taught me, the most important lessons that I’ve learned at SAMI are the unintended ones. When I began SAMI, I entered with the idea that school was necessary. Education was a singular step in my lifelong journey, something that I simply had to get through before I could continue on. My experiences have taught me that education is much more. Education is no longer a box that I can check off my list, it has become a consistent aspect of my life, something I’ll never be able to finish. Education is everywhere, in forest clearings, and sandy beaches. And sometimes, education is an opossum in your art class.

Aaron Buchholtz is a gentle giant. He’s well over 6 feet tall and one of the most lovable people I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing. He has developmental delays that make it hard for him to speak more than a few words at a time, but he’s always been able to communicate love and compassion with large hugs and genuine smiles.

His mom, Mary, told me that Aaron very nearly didn’t attend SOTA. Her older daughter, Ashley, was a junior at the school when Mary got a phone call from SOTA's co-director, Jon Ketler, asking her whether Aaron was going to apply to the school. She hadn’t realized that it was an option for students in Special Education, and was initially thinking that he wouldn’t be able to attend. Mary says, “Jon asked me, ‘Mary, do you want Aaron to spend all day sitting in the same room, or do you want him to be part of a community?’ And so we started the application process.”

Aaron receiving his diploma and shaking hands with Jon Ketler at graduation

Aaron receiving his diploma and shaking hands with Jon Ketler at graduation

Mary mentioned that empathy was evident even from the first day of camp. There was a breakout session where the students were supposed to put on a skit that incorporated the idea of Balance. During the conversation, Aaron got everyone’s attention and then stood on one leg. That motion was ultimately incorporated into their skit. Mary says, “I know that there is a lot more to balance than being able to balance on one foot, but that the students were willing to incorporate his idea and that he felt comfortable enough to share his idea told me that SOTA would work even if there wasn’t yet a firm educational plan.”

The plan that ultimately developed was affectionately known as “Team Aaron.” One of the primary members of the team was a senior named Bethany who was at risk of not graduating due to poor attendance. Several teachers noticed that Bethany had a heart for taking care of others, so she spent the majority of her senior year as a one-on-one helper for Aaron. Mary tells me, “the teachers at the school kept reporting that being Aaron’s one-on-one helper changed Bethany’s life to the point where she came to school sick because she wanted to make sure that Aaron would be ok at school. The one-on-one didn’t just help Aaron academically, it also gave Bethany a larger purpose for attending school.” This culminated in her Senior Project where she organized a field trip for Aaron that incorporated his love of trains.

Everyone at the school, from students to the co-directors, paid close attention to Aaron’s interests, and guaranteeing him opportunities that would allow him to pursue those interests. His math class used trains as manipulatives to teach computational skills. His photography class allowed him to take photos of trains and games. Many of his paintings in visual arts looked like topographical maps depicting train tracks. He took a miniterm class at the Washington State History Museum with the guys that run the large train. Mary says, “It was full inclusion without throwing Aaron in and hoping he could fend for himself. It’s individuals caring for individuals.”

Mary notes that Aaron was also able to learn a number of skills that he may not have learned in a pull-out special education class. He became proficient at negotiating the public bus system. In humanities he learned about the Chinese workers who built the train tracks across the United States. At home he showed Mary photos of the workers and then used a few words to describe their poor working conditions. He understood the main points, which he may not have been exposed to at all in a different setting.

Aaron with friends and family at graduation

Aaron with friends and family at graduation

When he was in his final year of school, Aaron had an internship at the Tacoma Lutheran Home during miniterm. This opportunity blossomed into full time work for him. The staff members there have helped him to see his strengths, providing him with more ways to volunteer as they see new abilities. He’s now 27 and is there five days a week, helping with exercise classes, carrying groceries, and assisting with meals. Mary says that he takes his work there very seriously. He had to get his food handler’s card and Mary notes that Aaron is extremely proud of the card: “he carries the card around in his wallet and likes to show people. It’s a demonstration of something that he’s been able to accomplish.”

Mary concluded by saying, “there was recognition [at SOTA] that Aaron is a valuable person. These pillars don’t just sound good. Aaron was seen as valuable by other students, by the teachers, and by the co-directors. They weren’t faking it.”

SOTA did many things for my life, but the greatest gift they gave me was encouraging me to think out of the box. Any possible thing you want to do in your life, you can. You may not know how, but that doesn’t mean you can’t learn along the way. For my senior project at SOTA, I attempted to build a guitar amplifier from scratch, which wasn’t the easiest of tasks and not really that feasible at the time. Zach Varnell set up a connection for me to drive to Seattle and meet with a guy who built amplifiers professionally. While everyone was attending school, I was able to receive credit by driving to Seattle and playing with guitar amps and its components. I remember feeling like the world was in my hands. He gave me the opportunity to be in control of everything.

I’m now studying Civil Engineering at the University of Hawaii at Manoa on track to graduate December of 2017. I work on, own, and maintain sailing yachts in Honolulu, HI. I’ve always had aspirations of circumnavigating the globe via a sailboat. Upon arrival to Hawaii, the prospect of purchasing a boat to live on instead of student housing or paying rent elsewhere became feasible. In February of 2014, I purchased a Cheoy Lee Offshore 40’ that was in need of serious refurbishment. After roughly a year of working on my boat, my eyes were opened. The possibilities of what was there and what could be excited me beyond belief and my life quickly became about nothing more than sailing. The knowledge I was learning in my introductory engineering classes enabled me to design and build a rig for my boat. After two years of tedious hours hanging in the air from a harness, I finished the rigging on my boat. I began professionally rigging boats on Oahu, completing my first large project of re-rigging a Columbia 43 in March of 2016. Through the summer I started a business re-rigging boats with a couple I met in Hawaii. I had previously never worked so hard with so much passion ever in my life. As the summer ended, I decided to take a leap of faith, and I now own a 72’ Schooner, which is a traditional American trading ship similar to the one on the Tillamook cheese package. I have everything I need in order to be mobile and to circumnavigate, supporting myself as I go. I hope to acquire my captain’s license by January 2017 and help one of my close friends sail his boat around the South Pacific before setting sail on my own adventure. Currently, my work has shifted from strictly canvas and rigging to total yacht maintenance.

Recently, I had to move a 35’ sailboat for a client. While everyone was at their day jobs, I was getting paid to sail a boat from the North Shore of Oahu to the South Shore of Oahu with three of my friends. That feeling of having the world in my hands and everything in control has stayed in moments like those. I feel blessed to be able to experience those moments. If it wasn’t for SOTA giving me the opportunity to see what I could accomplish and who I could become I don’t know where I would be today. If it had not been for SOTA, my thinking about my future and how to make my dreams a reality would have been limited.


Mari Thiersch speaks passionately about accessibility in science education. She was one of the 100 trailblazers of SAMI’s first class and is currently studying science education at College of the Atlantic in Maine. Her studies have encouraged her to think deeply about how to make science accessible for all students, largely influenced by her own experiences at SAMI.

Her passion for science started in the second semester of biology with Johnny Devine. She says that she had ho-hum feelings about the material in first semester and didn’t go into second semester with great expectations. That changed when one of her friends was in her class and asked a lot of questions. Mari says, “Once I learned that I could ask questions, the whole world opened up. I realized that science was about asking questions and making observations.” Through projects like the water quality testing programs, she grew to love science because she felt like “I’m actually DOING science!”

Science at SAMI was experiential and fun. She spoke fondly of an experiment in physics where they timed all the cars coming into the park to figure out who was speeding. She says, “I’ll never forget the equations for speed and velocity because they are directly tied to an experience outside the classroom.” Science was also integrated into other classes. Humanities teachers would note when a Latin word crossed over with Latin words in science. Dance teachers would reinforce anatomy and physiology curriculum through dance. The end result was that science was more accessible for her and the students around her because it was not a one-sided experience tied only to high-level concepts in a textbook, but instead was a balanced approach that incorporated experiential labs and other disciplines. No matter your post high plan, the attitude was that science was for all students.

As an educator, she is excited to provide the same experience for her students. She believes that accessibility comes from taking science out of an ivory tower and making it part of everyday life. Balance is about leaning into the paradox and tensions that develop: doing science vs. content in the textbook or artistic process vs. scientific process. Instead of asking how things are different, ask how they are similar. It’s finding where the two ideas or disciplines intersect and then pursuing a balanced way of thinking about them.

That approach requires that teachers decode terms for students so that they can understand the underlying ideas and concepts. She notes that sometimes educators mistakenly assume that we need to simplify out complexity so that students will understand. She says, “You have to show students the competing interests in detail and be explicit about the tensions. Most scenarios are both/and, not either/or. Right now I’m working with students in a climate change class. There are a lot of interests involved and it’s important to think about win/win scenarios. To show students that two things can be simultaneously true and that you have to deal with that complexity.”

Mari is excited to come to SAMI this January to help with a mini-term class called Scienceology. She’ll finish up her teaching program in June and then hopes to find a job at one of the Elements of Education Partner Schools. Mari says, “I’m excited to apply what I learned at SAMI by making science accessible and fun for all students and showing them how to integrate science into all parts of their lives.”