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Intelligent Machines

Sonya Sakai Lopes ‘86

Engineer now works to transform public education

Sonya Sakai Lopes studied electrical engineering when she attended the Institute on a U.S. Air Force ROTC scholarship, but even then she never confined herself to a single field, indulging interests in business and cognitive science. By now, her willingness to cross professional boundaries has led her far from her original studies.

After graduation, Lopes was stationed in Los Angeles at the Kinetic Energy Weapons Program Office, where she managed weapons contractors. She intended to leave the military after her obligatory four years, but a job conducting felony investigations and counterintelligence for the Air Force Office of Special Investigations enticed her to stay another six. During that time, she also worked on command-wide total quality management (TQM) initiatives, such as improving the process of conducting investigations to speed completion time and save money.

After leaving the military, Lopes married and began raising a family; her two sons are now 12 and eight. Her career took a new turn when, at an MIT Club of Northern California event, she encountered the founders of Partners in School Innovation. Their mission, to accelerate achievement in underperforming Bay Area schools in high-poverty communities, fascinated her, as did their plan to use TQM processes. Lopes joined Partners, but after a year, she decided she needed more hands-on experience to be effective at promoting educational reform. So she became a reform coördinator at an underperforming school in a pocket of poverty in an otherwise affluent district. After she spent four years implementing initiatives designed to improve teaching and administration, students’ test scores rose. But the problem, Lopes realized, was much broader. “I started to see a systemic issue,” she says. School reform worked only with support from districts, which responded to federal mandates. Her next job, at the Stupski Foundation, was national in scope. There she led interdisciplinary teams working in disadvantaged urban districts to navigate political and regulatory hurdles to improve teaching and learning.

This story is part of the November/December 2010 Issue of the MIT News Magazine
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Now, she helps reform education as an independent consultant for nonprofits and school districts, and she’s a partner at Collective Invention, a consultancy working to transform K-12 education. Looking ahead 15 years, Lopes imagines radical changes. Schooling may not necessarily take place in brick-and-mortar schools, she says. The new emphasis might be on personalized learning environments, where agents akin to personal trainers help meet each student’s needs. Funding for education would follow the child instead of being administered through bureaucracies like districts.

These are just predictions, of course, but Lopes believes that such changes will finally make public education viable for all. “I’m very optimistic when I’m in the transformation side of my work,” she says.

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