PART 1: L&N STEM Academy leaders committed to bring The Design|FORGE to reality

(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first article in a two-part series describing a bold vision that administrators, faculty and students have for the L&N STEM Academy. It’s a particularly timely article with the 2018-19 school year starting this week.)

By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA

Most residents of Knoxville have no doubt heard of the L&N STEM Academy, a magnet high school founded in 2011 and focused on the disciplines of science, technology, engineering and math. But, how much do they really know about what goes on inside the walls of the iconic former train station that gives the school its name?

We have visited the L&N Academy on several occasions including last November when its students were part of the local effort, spearheaded by Brandon Bruce, Co-Founder of Cirrus Insight, to break the Guinness Book of World Records high for the most people learning to code at the same time (see our article).

During that visit and a more extended interview later, we heard about an exciting new initiative that involves the school’s administrators, teachers, and students. More important, it puts an exclamation point, maybe two or three, on the vision as outlined on the school’s webpage: “The L&N STEM Academy will be an agent of transformational change in STEM education” where “design principles will be a hallmark of our school in learning, teaching, and leading,” and where “all STEM community members will use digital technologies, communication tools, and networks to assess, apply, and evaluate information as citizens in a knowledge economy.”

Those are pretty powerful words, so what could the big initiative be? I’ll give you an early hint. It is at the intersection of design, design thinking, and the technological revolution permeating much of society. Think of how computer-generated animation, modeling, prototyping, digital landscaping, 3D printing, and special effects are impacting the design and development of new products.

Perhaps Principal Becky Ashe captured the initiative best during our follow-up interview.

“We want to be ahead of the cutting edge,” she explained, adding, “We want to be on the bleeding edge, and this would put Knoxville on the map.” Isn’t that really consistent with the stated vision for the L&N Academy?

So, what’s the “really big idea”? It’s a 15,000 square foot facility called The Design|FORGE that will be a resource, not only for the students at the L&N Academy, but also for the community at large. Initially, it would dedicate about 15,000 square feet to a maker lab that students would use during the day and the community could use after school hours, perhaps involving students in those efforts.

“The Design|FORGE would provide students access to advanced equipment along with multi-dimensional design “thinking principles” that will create the infrastructure required for the creation of professional level prototypes, solutions, software applications, models and products,” says Clint LaFollette, Department Head for Career Technical Education (CTE) and Lead Instructor for Design, 3D Design and Animation.

Every successful initiative needs a visionary and champion, and LaFollette has clearly embraced that role with The Design|FORGE to which he brings passion and knowledge for the project.

“When I got here, I was enthused with the design-centered process,” he says. Prior to joining the L&N Academy team at the start of the 2014-15 school year, he had been teaching for a number of years. His career also includes considerable work both nationally and internationally as a creative consultant, design director, and Vice President of Design in Washington, DC.

“We want to empower students to see design as a cross disciplinary tool,” LaFollette explains. That’s what The Design|FORGE can do. “We want to create a design space with no boundaries . . . a space where our students will be able to leverage multi-dimensional thinking and fully prototype anything they want to do.”

Ashe adds that the facility would be one of the first of its kind in U.S. high school focusing on the D-School Process and multi-dimensional thinking and hopefully part of the MIT Fab Lab network. The latter is a global community of learners, educators, technologists, researchers, makers and innovators. It’s described as “a knowledge sharing network that spans 30 countries and 24 time zones.”

“We have seen a rapid rise in schools opening maker spaces and this is great,” LaFollette says, noting that “there’s a spanner in the works… that is, often the equipment is placed in a library or media space and falls silent once the fun of downloading 3D Things and printing them wares off or the equipment needs a repair or new part which is unfortunate.”

The Design|FORGE solves that problem by developing a diverse center that links all aspects via “design” as the point of convergence with multi-dimensional thinking. It becomes the v2.0 model for school makerspaces.

NEXT: Exactly what is being planned?

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