A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Educators, business leaders, meet at future site of Ignite Institute to discuss utilization strategy

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By Mark Hansel
NKyTribune managing editor

When Toyota announced in March that it was donating its Quality and Production Engineering Laboratory in Erlanger to develop a STEAM-focused education center, stakeholders said to achieve its goals the project had to be a collaborative endeavor.

Boone County Schools Superintendent Dr. Randy Poe (center) participates in a breakout session with educators and business leaders. The discussion was part of a collaboration center that included a tour of the future home of the Ignite Institute at Roebling Center (photos by Mark Hansel).

On a recent Saturday morning, that collaboration began in earnest as a group of more than 30 teachers, administrators and business leaders came together at the site for a planning session.

Dr. Randy Poe, superintendent of Boone County Schools, started the session by providing a bit of background on the project and explaining the roles the stakeholders in attendance would play.

He said the Ignite Institute at Roebling Innovation Center is a great vision that will require the participation of everyone in the room.

“It started with Toyota wanting to give back to the community,” Poe said. “After multiple conversations with the community over the last two years, we are really progressing and getting closer to that timeline of 2018 and 2019.”

The transformation will pick up steam in January, 2018, when Toyota officially transfers the property.

Dave Fleischer, a senior project manager with Toyota, said when company officials told Governor Matt Bevin they would be leaving Northern Kentucky he asked what they were planning to give back to the community.

He said there was a lot of discussion about a possible monetary gift or some other type of community contribution, but those seemed more like a quick fix than a solution.

“The right answer was to find a way to make the community self-sufficient,” Fleischer said. “Workforce is a big deal for us and education is one of the key components, so this made the most sense”

Dave Fleischer, a senior project manager with Toyota, shows participants a rendering of the vision for the Ignite Institute. Fleischer said Toyota determined that helping the region to develop a self-sufficient workforce was the right thing to do.

Fleischer will be staying on with Toyota in Northern Kentucky to help facilitate the handover of the building between the operator, Boone County and the Toyota-related groups. Poe said Fleischer was instrumental in bringing the project together and at some point could take on a role with the Ignite Institute.

Boone County Schools will manage the Ignite Institute, which will become a STEAM-focused education center serving the Northern Kentucky/Greater Cincinnati region.

STEAM education places an emphasis on Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts and Mathematics.

Poe said a little bit of the conversation goes back to the success of Makerspace  and wanting to grow the Ignite Institute into a sort of Maker high school.

“We don’t want to just be tinkering, we want to create and transform what we are doing on the classroom and that’s what the Makerspace is about,” Poe said. “We’ve got the students that are so excited about learning and with what they are doing in the elementary schools, we’ve got to give them an outlet.”

While Boone County Schools will manage the school, the Ignite Institute will be open to the region.

“The purpose of this and the vision for this is to have a personalized learning platform, built around service learning, project-based learning, and solving authentic problems and that’s where the industry partners come into play,” Poe said. “We need to know what they need in order for us to supply that workforce.”

Representatives from, Hahn Automation, St. Elizabeth Healthcare and C-Forward Information Technologies were among those from the business community in attendance.

Poe encouraged the educators to imagine a life sciences classroom designed with input from St. Elizabeth Healthcare, a computer lab designed with real world direction from C-Forward and an advanced manufacturing area with quality processes and input from Hahn Automation.

Educators and business leaders engaged in a discussion following a tour of the facility to help develop a strategy on how best to utilize the space.

That and more is envisioned for the Ignite Institute, and Poe said educators will be critical to its success.

“This is a new learning high school and it’s how high schools of the future should be – that is a combination of deeper learning, hands-on learning,” Poe said. “(Now) individuals come out with an associate’s degree or a bachelor’s degree and some of their first true authentic experience comes when they get to the job and start learning. What we want to do is transform that and for them to have those experiences before they get out to the workplace.”

As a student enters the Ignite Institute, the vision is that there are no chronological grade levels, such as those currently used in high schools. Students are free to master content and move in that progression, at their own rate, and continue earning postsecondary credit before they get out of high school.

“We visited many models across the country and we want students to be able to master content,” Poe said. “We want you, as teachers in this school, to be creative with them and take them as far as they can go. The end goal is that a student can come out of the ignite institute with an associate’s degree in five area sectors, or 60 gen-ed credit hours, so when they get out, the sky is the limit for them.”

Prior to a tour of the facility, participant broke into small groups to talk about the task in front of them.

Responses ranged from “exciting,” to “challenging” and “a daunting task,” and most agreed that Boone County Schools had developed an impressive blueprint for implementation. They were also impressed that while many of the opportunities discussed were available somewhere in the region, the Ignite Institute would offer all of them in a collaborative manner on one campus to all eligible students.

Dr. Jim Detwiler, deputy superintendent – chief academic officer for Boone County Schools, encouraged participants, as they were touring the facility, to think about ways to not just teach, but involve students.

“We do such a great job at educating kids in the region, but that one small part is that we’re noticing not all students are engaged,” Detwiler said. “We see it at the Imagineering Academy in Boone County, when students come to you that are now engaged and they might not have been before. To me that’s kind of been my motivating story.”

One challenge for teachers, Detwiler said, is that when meeting with parents and students, to change the conversation from GPA and ACT to problem-solving skills that are going to allow them to get a job.

“Parents have been conditioned in this model for a very long time and if it’s not clear to them how this is going to transfer to a job or a degree for their children, they are going to fall back to wanting them to get a 30-plus on the ACT and have them pick a four-year university,” Detwiler said.

The exterior of the Toyota Facility as it looks today (provided)

Fleischer said Toyota’s goal is to hire the best in the nation, so they routinely see resume’s with GPAs “out the window.” But, he added, that just opens the door.

“We have what we call a STAR (Situation, Task, Action, Results) style of a prospect,” Fleischer said. “As we see these people interact, we start to look at their soft skills. They can be very bright, but if they can’t talk to you, they are not going to get a job offer.”

Jenny Watson, assistant superintendent of learning/support for Boone County Schools, said she is excited that the curriculum will focus on more than just traditional methods.

“We see it every day at Makerspace, students can come in and ace and interview or with a 4.0 GPA, but when they are given a task to complete, that problem-solving skill has not been there in every traditional classroom,” Watson said. “It’s so exciting to hear that we are going to be working toward creative problem-solving skills in a unique and non-traditional way. Students are going to be able to build these skills by working directly with companies, not with a teacher that they see every day and that’s going to build so much more than just a GPA.”

The two-story 180,000 square foot facility is envisioned to house up to 1,000 students. The first floor is going to be primarily project-based learning space that can be altered and adapted in size for specific projects. The top side, or second floor, will be used as a more traditional learning space.

Toyota plans to leave behind all of the furnishings on the second floor, which can seat about 700 students in personalized learning spaces.

“This allows us not to have to spend a lot of money on furniture,” Poe said. “All of the stations are equipped with electric and hard-wired cabling, so not only will there be Wi-Fi across the building, but there will be hardlines to avoid disruptions.”

The spaces are similar to traditional office workspaces with open cubicles, arranged in pods of between eight and 30. Conference rooms on the upper level will be opened up using glass to allow for students to work in groups, while being monitored.

Teachers will decide how the space will be used and can alternate students between the traditional classroom setting  and the labs depending on their progress.

Educators at the session were invited to take supplies that will be left behind when Toyota vacates the facility, for use in their classrooms.

“That’s part of the reason we wanted you teachers to see this, because that’s what you have to be thinking about,” Poe said. “As students are progressing, how do move them from cohort to cohort as they are gaining particular skills and leadership and how do you utilize your space.”

The session concluded with groups consisting of educators and business partners discussing what they had seen and how the facility might be used to provide the best opportunities for students exploring the different career fields.

“Our particular labs, as we develop this project is not for Boone County or the regional schools to create the lab space of what project to work on,” Poe said. “That’s for the area businesses and where the partnerships with the businesses are so critical.”

Ignite Institute will operate as a Boone County District of Innovation School of Choice. A board of advisors, consisting of business and other leaders, will be assembled to create a foundation to support the center.

The State of Kentucky has committed a $6.8m Work Ready Skills Initiative grant to Boone County Schools to adapt the office and engineering lab. The Ignite Institute at Roebling Innovation Center is scheduled to be ready for students in time for the 2019-2020 academic year.

Contact Mark Hansel at mark.hansel@nkytrib.com

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