A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Energy from students to fuel success of Ignite Institute; envisioned as region’s workforce pipeline

By Mark Hansel
NKyTribune managing editor

Friday’s ribbon cutting at the Ignite Institute at Roebling Innovation Center in Erlanger marked the culmination of a leap of faith more than five years in the making.

Gov. Matt Bevin joined educators, elected officials and business leaders from throughout the region at the ceremony.

Classes actually began at the Ignite Institute a few weeks ago, but Friday’s event provided an opportunity to recognize those that helped make the STEAM-based education center possible.

In April, 2014, Toyota announced it would close its North American Headquarters in Erlanger, now home to the Ignite Institute, and two other facilities as part of a plan to consolidate operations in Texas.

The transformation of the Ignite Institute at Roebling Center from a production lab to an education hub was years in the making. At left are photos of the facility in September 2017, when educators from the region met for a brainstorming session and tour of the facility. At right are photos from Friday’s ribbon cutting (photos by Mark Hansel). Click to enlarge.

Michael Goss, General Manager of Social Innovation at Toyota North America was on hand to help explain the building’s transformation from a production laboratory to a hub for higher learning.

“This area was about to lose good jobs and good people,” Goss said. “Within our walls, we considered how to leave behind something that would somehow replace ourselves in Northern Kentucky. We’ve been part of the fabric of this great community for 20 years. 

“We were always involved in education, especially how to build a more robust and diverse talent pipeline in the STEM fields. So, our departure actually became an opportunity to address the problem.”

Toyota officials convened a meeting of about 40 business leaders to talk about how the facility might become a center of education that could help develop the skilled workforce that was lacking in the region.

“I opened the first meeting by saying this is an idea to help solve the STEM problem,” Goss said. “If you can conceive it, then we have a building in which you can create it.”

Goss drew hearty laughs from the crowd when he acknowledged he had no authority at that time to donate a building.

Still, the seed was planted and when Boone County Schools agreed to take ownership of the building and Kenton County Schools came on board as a partner, Goss said it was an easy call for Toyota.

Planning for the innovation center in the following years was not as easy, but the collaboration and determination of a host of community leaders kept the project on track.

Former Toyota executives Carri Chandler, now with the St. Elizabeth Healthcare Foundation, Helen Carroll, and Dave Fleischer, executive director of the Ignite Institute, were all recognized Friday for remaining in the region and helping to facilitate the repurposing of the facility. 

A $6.8 million Work Ready Skills Initiative grant supported by the Kentucky General Assembly provided critical funding needed to help convert the building.

Gov. Bevin said he could feel the energy of the students as soon as he walked into the school.

Ribbon cutting for the Ignite Institute at Roebling Innovation Center

Posted by Mark Hansel on Saturday, September 14, 2019

The day in pictures. A video collage of photos from the Friday, Sept. 13 ribbon cutting at the Ignite Institute at Roebling Innovation Center in Erlanger.

“One of the wonderful things about energy and lots of it is, that’s what ignition needs, it needs energy and what a perfect name for this academy,” Bevin said. “Kids that come from so many disparate backgrounds, but are being woven together in this amazing place.”

Bevin also addressed the students, emphasizing the opportunity they have been afforded.

“You have been given a ticket to ride,” he said. “How far you ride, how far you go, which stop you get off on, is going to be largely up to you. You have been blessed to get on this bus and take it all the way to the end of the line and some of you will come out of here with associates degree and maybe even beyond that.”

A view from above of a common area at the Ignite Institute at Roebling Innovation Center. Classes have been in session for a few weeks, but the official ribbon cutting at the new facility took place Friday.

The Ignite Institute uses a performance-based model that allows students to move through high school and college level work at their own pace and path.

The school is designed to appeal to students who prefer project-based, hands-on, collaborative education.  Programs will focus on problem solving, teamwork, and non-traditional approaches to learning.

The Ignite Institute is in its first year, but has 1,000 student in grades nine through 12 who do not pay tuition.

Admission is not based on GPA, but on a student’s desire to learn the skills required for employment in their chosen field. There is a formal application process, but the goal is to make attendance available for any interested student.

The seven colleges of innovation include, logistics, biomedical, computer science, design, education, construction technology and engineering.

Boone County Schools Superintendent Dr. Randy Poe said  the building was designed for 21st-century learning.

“Learning has changed and our facilities have to change with us,” Poe said. “I’d like to thank the commissioners for working with us, to allow us to be transformational in this learning environment.”

Poe credited the leaders at Thomas More University, Gateway Community and Technical College and Northern Kentucky University for helping to usher in a new approach to education in the region.

“This is a new day for K-14 learning, because its not just K-12,” Poe said. “The scholars we have talked about and who will learn here have an opportunity to earn an associate’s degree before they walk out the high school door and that’s an amazing feat.

Dr. Henry Webb, superintendent for Kenton County Schools told the students every aspect of the school was designed to focus on how their educational needs could best be met.

“You’re the reason we’re here, you’re the reason all of us came together to create these opportunities for you,” Webb said. “I trust that today you are enjoying your educational opportunities at this wonderful facility and I know you are…because you tell me so every time that I see you.”

Ignite Institute features large open classrooms; project spaces with flexible seating; collaborative spaces; glass-walled meeting areas and study rooms and an open cafeteria.

It also includes art and video production areas; robotic and automation labs; makerspaces; fabrication and arts labs; a health sciences area; and manufacturing and logistics education areas.

The goal is to encourage students to prepare for a career in the field they have chosen, but also allows them the flexibility to switch paths, if they develop an interest in something else along the way.

For more information on the Ignite Institute and its programs and learning opportunities, click here. 

Contact Mark Hansel at mark.hansel@nkytrib.com


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