Breaking the Mold
Innovation Academy Models Cutting-Edge Learning for Primary Education
“The Innovation Academy is based on the academic blueprint of a university, with project-based thinking. We teach students how to analyze a situation, recognize what they know and need to know, and develop a plan or strategy to accomplish the task.”
-- Eli Crow, School Superintendent
Tejas Narayanan is a lot like any other fifth-grader . . . with one notable exception.
He wakes up every morning eager to get to school.
"I feel great about going to school every morning, knowing that I will learn something new and exciting. We are never bored or feel left behind," he said.
Tejas is one of 280 students in third- through sixth-grade who attend The University of Texas at Tyler's Innovation Academy across three campuses in the area – Tyler, Palestine and Longview. The pioneering new educational program integrates technology and project-based learning with an emphasis on science, technology, engineering and math.
After opening the cutting-edge Innovation Academy last fall, administrators, faculty, parents and students say this first year has been an incredible success.
The earlier students learn how to use critical thinking, the more successful they will be in higher education and their future career, he said. "Studies show that 80 percent of all future careers will require students to use science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) thinking. The same is true of project-based thinking."
The Innovation Academy was launched by the UT Tyler Ingenuity Center, a component of the Texas STEM initiative to improve science, engineering and mathematics achievement among Texas students.
"UT Tyler was uniquely positioned to launch the Innovation Academy model because of the Ingenuity Center's work developing and supporting STEM academies across the state,'' said Dr. Michael Odell, Ingenuity Center executive director. "We also wanted to develop a model demonstration school for STEM schools, focusing on college and career readiness. We believe this model can be replicated across the state and nation."
Leading the Way
Innovation Academy organizers say the university charter school is one way UT Tyler can empower primary and secondary educators by example.
"The community needs a way to educate our students for the future, and prepare them for college in real-world ways,'' said Angela Stinson, Innovation Academy English teacher and team leader. "Project-based learning not only teaches state standards, but also teaches them how to solve real world problems."
Teaching models used at Innovation Academy allow area school districts to see innovation in action. Students in the entire region can benefit from the lessons learned, said Brian Weaver, director of curriculum and instruction.
"Educational institutions have always wrestled with the best way to prepare our students for their futures,'' Weaver said. "Just as every classroom has diverse students with diverse needs, every community should have multiple mechanisms for providing education opportunity."
"As a charter school,'' he added, "We are helping to meet the diverse needs of our communities. We do have some freedoms that will allow us to 'experiment' with some approaches that may prove to be transferable and beneficial to other schools in the community, throughout the state and the nation. We hope to contribute to the endeavor of meeting the diverse needs of students and our community."
In addition to project-based learning, fresh educational practices the Innovation Academy is bringing to the table include flipped instruction, cooperative learning groups, one-to-one technology, parent partnership in blended learning and professional learning communities.
"We also have a little different philosophy about technology than other educational programs'' Crow said. "Technology is something we all use. It is all around us, constantly changing and moving among us. Phones, ipods, laptops – they are just part of who we are and what we do. So, we see it as one of the most promising practices in education."
Every student in the program receives an iPad to use. Students are also encouraged to bring their own electronic devices to school as tools to tackle the challenges of the day.
Innovation Academy students are immersed in strategic practices designed to push them into a higher level of comprehension and learning. Even the weekly schedule for students is the "out-of-the-box."
A Day in the Life of ...
Monday through Friday, students experience face-to-face, on-site learning with teachers for four hours.
"This time is for project-based learning," Crow said. "They work in groups to tackle projects developed by teachers. This project-based learning flips the process upside down. They start with a project and in the process of completing the project, they learn the educational objectives."
Stinson noted, "Most of our daily lessons do not come out of a box or notebook. They are carefully planned by the faculty, based on the needs of our students and what's happening in the real world that affects us each day."
The educational process doesn't end when the students leave the classroom. They work through one to two hours of online lessons, a mix of practice work and lesson introduction. "We give them the information ahead of time so that when they come to class, they can put it to use," Crow said.
The afternoons are also free for field trips and extracurricular activities.
"We give the students the ability to take control of what and how they learn by using the Flipped Classroom model of teaching,'' said Astrid Gentry, an Innovation Academy science teacher and UT Tyler graduate.
"Students spend half of their day working in cooperative groups on projects,'' she said. "The other half of their day is spent at home doing enrichment that supports the standards the projects are built around. Instead of spending our classroom time lecturing, students have the lecture at home through a variety of modes – online curricula, books, videos or lessons designed by the teachers. By having the lecture at home, students are then free to apply the concepts at school."
Students also are taking what they learn and applying it to real-world projects that impact the lives of others. Teachers, students and parents have joined forces to make a difference through community projects, including events to assist victims of natural disasters, community awareness activities and recycling efforts.
"When students studied natural disasters, they wanted to raise money for disaster relief by having an 'Innovation-a-thon.' They walked, rode bikes and scooters and raised over $2,400 for victims of Super Storm Sandy,'' Gentry said of the Tyler campus. "With the fundraiser, they also created disaster awareness videos which can be presented to audiences to instruct on preparedness and how storms form."
All three campuses got involved, with each group of students designing their own way to raise money, Crow noted. More than $6,000 was raised for the cause. "That's pretty impressive for only 280 students,'' he said.
Lean on Me
Administrators say parental involvement is a vital ingredient to the success of the academy. Parents and teachers work as an educational team.
"We knew we would have very involved parents and engaged students when we began,'' Crow said. "But we have been pleasantly surprised by the level of it. I could not have predicted the level of support and the engagement of parents."
Tejas' mother, Lalitha Krishnan, said she chose Innovation Academy to provide a different learning experience for him. "I believe it has infused a 'purpose for learning' in my child. The projects have motivated him to take responsibility for his learning. He has developed a thirst for learning and an enthusiasm to work in groups," she said.
Krishnan serves on the Parental Field Experience Committee and has helped plan field trips and events to complement learning. Parental involvement in the educational process is an important factor to a child's success in school, she said. "All in all, it has been a rewarding experience to work with teachers and students and contribute toward the learning process."
Gentry said the teacher-parent partnership is more rewarding than she could have imagined. "I honestly feel like we are making a difference in these kids' lives, and working towards changing the paradigm of education," the teacher said.
Stinson agreed: "I feel like the Innovation Academy is 'our' school. The faculty and parents here have ownership in the ideas that have helped shaped the school. Students are excited to be here, and eager to see what the next day holds. As you walk through any of our classrooms, you will see students engaged in learning."
Innovation Academy plans to add a grade each year until the program teaches third through 12th grade. Any student can apply to the school. A lottery is used when applications exceed open spots.
For more information about the Innovation Academy, go to www.uttia.org.
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