Member spotlight: Innovation in preK-12 education in Greece | MIT J-WEL

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Member spotlight: Innovation in preK-12 education in Greece

Implementing hands-on, project-based learning

Students at the 2019 summer steam camp.Nathalie Contomichalos, co-founder of Mathisi Initiative, is working to bring innovative, project-based, and cross-disciplinary programs to middle-school-aged students in Greece. Mathisi (which means “learning” in Greek) is dedicated to improving equity and access to education in Greece, as well as fostering a mindset of life-long learning. The nonprofit works in collaboration with international and local organizations, local schools, and local teachers.

Originally from France, Nathalie moved to the U.S. and worked in finance before moving to Greece with her husband (who is Greek) and their children. She says her experiences as a parent led her to learn about the Greek education system (which is centralized with one national curriculum) and think about what young learners should be learning in school nowadays.

“In terms of what the curriculum accomplishes, there are indicators showing that perhaps students don’t learn in school what they’re expected to learn, and what they’re expected to learn may not be what they need to learn,” says Nathalie.

The 2015 and 2018 Programmes for International Student Assessment (PISA) reports (a worldwide study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) shows Greece performing significantly below the average of its peers. Reports from Greek employers and higher education institutions also highlight concerns that young Greek students are not learning “soft skills,” such as critical thinking, creative thinking, the ability to work in groups, and effective communication. These skills generally have not been included in the curriculum, which has tended to focus more on memorization, traditional learning exercises, and passing final exams.

Nathalie co-founded Mathisi Initiative with another parent in an attempt to respond to these challenges. They researched curriculum trends in higher-education, industry and workplace surveys, and developments in our understanding of how we learn, as well as pk-12 innovative programs.

“We want to give access to what is relevant and useful,” says Nathalie. “We want to re-engage students in learning—making learning a key part of life, not just something you do in school because you have to do it, and then as soon as you come out of school you want to do something else.”

The first major project of Mathisi Initiative was a summer STEAM camp in 2019, fully supported by J-WEL, held very deliberately in a school—so students could experience school as a place of fun, hands-on learning. The camp was taught by MIT mentors in conjunction with local teachers, in an effort to have them be the early adopters of this new style of education. The program was deemed a great success by students, parents, and teachers. In particular, the program empowered teachers to involve other teachers—spreading better, different teaching practices.

With the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, it wasn’t possible to continue with the summer camps, so Nathalie and her team worked to re-adapt the J-WEL STEAM modules used in the camp—keeping the same project-based philosophy and bringing them into the regular school setting, as well as exploring different project-based assessment tools in order to objectively evaluate the approach's effectiveness.

Mathisi Initiative has also been working with the BeaverWorks Summer Institute at MIT, launching a program in Greece in which students attend BeaverWorks’ online course to build an autonomous race car. Students can attend this robotics course fully online—which effectively removes any obstacles of cost and location. The course has been offered through schools (18 schools are participating), consistent with Mathisi’s objective of placing its programs in a school environment. To give this effort visibility and provide incentives for students to participate, a national competition, for students who will have completed the course, will be held in June 2022. The competition received the approval of Greece’s Ministry of Education.

Nathalie is grateful for the help and support received from J-WEL, and notes that while Mathisi is still at the beginning of a long-term process, she sees Mathisi’s work as a promising way of working with all stakeholders to adapt and enrich the educational landscape in Greece.

“As a parent nowadays, you see a lot of things that are changing, and you wonder what it is that you need to prepare your kids for,” says Nathalie. “The world is changing, and the educational system needs to change with it.”

Photo: Students at the 2019 summer steam camp.