The Power of Real World Learning: A STEM Case Study By Two "Passionate" Practitioners, Part 1: Todd's Story

RE@L is proud to bring our readers a “Double Perspective” of Case Studies on STEM-based Real World Learning. This kind of learning goes by many names these days: STEM, STEAM, PBL (Project-Based Learning), EL (Expeditionary Learning) to name some.

toddjackieTodd LaFrenz and Jackie Murdock LaFrenz are dedicated teachers from Bend, OR who use these powerful principles, and a dedicated personal passion to make them happen for their students. To further spread the good word of what works in STEM-based, mold-breaking schools, we asked each of them to respond separately to the following 5 questions.

First, we present Todd LaFrenz, a middle school teacher of Mind-Body curriculum through Expeditionary Learning (EL). His school was a recent recipient of the prestigious EL Credential AwardClick here to learn more about this unique award given to “high-achieving, character-focused schools.”

Below is Todd’s perspective on what it takes to make this real-world learning work so well at his REALMS school.


1.   You and your wife Jackie are both experienced educators in award-winning, innovative schools. What led to your own interest in working in a school like yours that is so different from the mainstream?

grade-4Todd LaFrenz: “It was sort of luck in the beginning.  My first teaching position was as a 4th grade teacher in a small, private school.  We used the Core Knowledge®  curriculum by E. D. Hirsch and developed our lessons from scratch based on the ideas presented in the book “What Your 4th Grader Needs To Know.” It was the way I thought everyone was teaching and it didn’t feel overwhelming because we implemented the new program in small steps, each year building on the previous.


When I was looking for new teaching opportunities, I found REALMS (Rimrock Expeditionary Alternative Learning Middle School), another small school but it was a charter school instead of private.  The school followed the Expeditionary Learning model and based the teaching on the Common Core Standards

We created our lessons from scratch and supported one another to improve and expand those lessons each year.  I think I would have a difficult time teaching from a book or being told what I should teach and how I should do it.  I love the ability to guide my students learning and I love working in a small-school setting.

2.   The words STEM, STEAM, Project-Based, Expeditionary, Local/Global Learning are frequently seen on the web and social media today. How does your school fit into all this, and why did your school select this curriculum?

REALMS is known as an Expeditionary Learning school which means we use EL principles to continually challenge students to become critical thinkers and problem solvers.  We work to build skills to tackle complex ideas, problems and texts.  In addition, we develop the student’s character and habits needed for success in college, careers and in life.  EL feels like “real world” learning. We believe the work we are doing is truly preparing students for their future. STEAM is a way to teach how many areas of study relate to one another. REALMS uses STEAM ideas and teaching concepts as a means to meet state and national standards.

3.   What tips do you have for other reformers out there who want to make changes like you’ve made in their own classroom or schools?

Providing Professional Development opportunities at the teacher education levels is critical. Future educators need to learn alternative methods for presenting information and assessing progress towards standards. These teaching methods must involve using non-traditional resources for teachers. The new world of educational technology provides opportunity for teachers to create their own lessons using real-world applications. We also reach out to our communities and businesses to support our work and provide those real-world situations.

4.   Both you and Jackie told us your chosen educational career is your “life’s work.” You suggest that the “passion” for what you do is the key catalyst to make it happen. Is “passion” critical for what you do? If so, how do you try to instill a “passion for learning” with your students? How do you keep that passion alive in your own careers?

Passion is definitely a catalyst.  This work can’t be done without individuals who are willing to challenge the “norm”.  And along with that, passion brings a commitment of willingness to work to achieve it.  It’s not to work more, but to work smarter.  

We collaborate with a growing network of educators who bring their passion to support one anotherStudents also need to become catalyst of their own learning. It is our job to provide learning opportunities for students to make that happen.  We can be the models for learners.”


Thanks to Todd LaFrenz for his unique and useful insights on how to bring real-world learning to his students! 

RE@L believes that the educational technology industry is rapidly providing tools needed for promoting wide spread use of a new curriculum, one that includes helping teachers who need assistance in implementing these new techniques. 

Our next RE@L Blog Case Study will feature Jackie Murdock LaFrenz and her comments.

If you have any questions or comments for Todd or us, click on “Comments” below. 

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Tom King & Dale LaFrenz

Dr. Tom King has served for over 40 years as an Adjunct Professor at the University of Saint Thomas in the School of Education. The Saturn School of Tomorrow, formerly a St. Paul Public School, was his visionary response to educational reform needed in K-12 schools. Saturn was a lighthouse on the frontier of school change. Tom served as an experienced high school mathematics teacher, a school administrator at Saturn School and Director of Technology for the St. Paul MN Public Schools. Tom is also a member of the RE@L Team ----- Dr. Dale LaFrenz is Chairman of RE@L, Inc and one of the founders of MECC, Inc - the Minnesota company that brought “Oregon Trail” and more than a hundred products to millions of K12 students across the world. His work in building new paths for MECC’s “consumer” market” was instrumental in the start of an Industry in K12 EdTECH: including school-markets, students, teachers and parents. RE@L Inc continues to serve K12 as a LearningProduct "launching pad" for schools, online learning and the rapidly growing STEM market as a whole.