Female professor stops at students desk to discuss his work.

Back to List

Alumna Combines Love of Science with Helping Others in Aquaponics Lab

A YCP alumna posing for her headshot

Samantha “Sam” Johnson ’05 thought she would work in a traditional classroom teaching biology. When she saw an opportunity to join a Pennsylvania cyber charter school, she found her path to building a career.

Samantha “Sam” Johnson ’05 saw her career the way many future teachers might. When she graduated with her degree in Secondary Education Biology from York College of Pennsylvania, she thought she’d take a job at a local school and work there for the remainder of her career.

Johnson soon found her path would take a less traditional route. She landed a job at a Pennsylvania cyber charter school, Commonwealth Charter Academy, where she’d help students learn in more innovative ways.

“I’ve always had a heart for helping students and my community,” Johnson says. “When I saw the work that was being done to help students who needed it most, I knew this was the school for me.”

Helping others

Johnson enrolled at York College as a Biology major, but found she didn’t get the personal satisfaction she was hoping for from working in a lab. When she spoke to some of her friends who were Education majors, she saw where she could combine her love of science with helping others.

In her first Education classes, she found a different part of her brain turned on–empathy and understanding of how students learn and what impacts them came to the forefront. She exercised her passion for giving back by volunteering with Habitat for Humanity. She not only helped build homes locally in York County, but often took spring break trips to help in other parts of the country.

When she graduated and started looking for a full-time position, she was offered a job with a more traditional high school at the same time she was offered a position by Commonwealth Charter Academy. What swayed her decision to go with the cyber charter school was learning some of the reasons why students might choose that form of education.

For some, Johnson says, medical reasons make learning at home a necessity. Others are bullied in a traditional school setting, and being at home provides the best environment for them. Some find they have more control over how they learn by being at home with the support of a public cyber school.

“I felt very passionate in those areas, and I was willing to take the leap of faith and not go my normal route with seeing kids face- to-face,” she says. “It proved to be a choice that would provide me with a lot of opportunities to challenge myself and grow.”

Innovation in education

Today, Johnson is the Director of the Aquaponics Program at AgWorks, a division of Commonwealth Charter Academy that’s based in Harrisburg. It is the largest, educationally-based aquaponic facility in the country. This learning laboratory provides students an opportunity to do hands-on workforce development training, where they can dive into the work they might do if they pursued careers in hydroponics, specialized labs, or agriculture fields.

She also helped launch a mobile lab—with several more on deck—that travels to different parts of the state and helps students gain more experiences beyond what they might receive in their typical cyber school kits.

It’s all part of a larger effort by the cyber school to help students find viable careers in agriculture, medical fields, and technology. By introducing them to career potentials, cyber school teachers can then guide them to the next best step, whether it be at a college that offers a program in their field of interest or jobs that are available to them right after high school.

“I never knew when I left York College that this would be the career path I’d find myself on,” Johnson says. “It’s been very rewarding for me. I feel I’m giving my students some of the best learning experiences they can have, and I’m helping prepare them for the rest of their lives.”