UT Tyler Innovation Academy uses project based learning to prepare students for life

Published on Monday, 20 March 2017 18:23 - Written by

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CORY MCCOY, comccoy@tylerpaper.com

Many kids are happy to stay home from school, but one group is busy designing a virtual reality classroom to make sure they never miss a day.

From designing a virtual world to building 3-D models of a new school, students at the University of Texas Tyler’s Innovation Academy are building the school of the future.

Nestled behind the Ornelas Activity Center on Old Omen Road, the charter school run by UT Tyler focuses on Project and Problem Based Learning Strategies, while encouraging its students to pursue  their ideas and put them into practice.

“Kids are beyond capable of what traditional schools allow them to be,” Eighth Grade Science Teacher Emily Wood said. “Technology makes a difference. If I give them the structures and foundation they can run with it, they teach themselves.”

On a typical school day students can be found working on a variety of projects to help prepare them both for standardized tests and the real world.

A fourth-grade class might be developing ways to stop landslides, learning principles such as erosion, weathering and map use. Meanwhile, the eighth-grade students learn complex math formulas used to figure out if a planet is in the habitable zone of a star.

Wood said students not only better understand the material they will be tested on during STAAR tests, but also know the real world application for those lessons.

Patty Mabry’s 10th-grade architecture design and principles students are designing their ideal school, in preparation for the day when UT funds a building project for Innovation Academy.

Isaac Rodgerson, 15, has more than an hour commute each day from Ben Wheeler, but he said the quality of the school is worth the drive.

“I always tell people it’s a lot of work but there are a lot of advantages here,” Rodgerson said. “It’s challenging; it’s not slow paced. If you came here expecting it to be easy, then it isn’t for you.”

Rodgerson said the school is giving him a preview of what college life will be like. He already is taking dual credit classes at UT Tyler. He plans to study psychiatry. The science classes help him gain an understanding of chemicals and interactions, while his elective courses are an introduction to college level psychology.

Students also are learning about the latest technology.

Michael Voght teaches computer science and integrates technology to show the students how to create 21st century solutions. Students learn to build cell phone applications and how to model 3-D environments, which they can explore via augmented reality programs with a headset.

The headsets were cost prohibitive, so the class came up with ways to make their own with the school’s 3-D printers.

“Teaching here is a dream come true,” he said. “I love it; it allows me to go deeper on topics that take more focus.”

While Voght was working on a research project for a masters degree on virtual reality and augmented reality in the classroom, his own students began a project of their own.

“They are going to get introduced to a level of engineering and technology that is already at the collegiate level,” Voght said. “They’re not getting college ready; they’re doing college.”

Students Trevor Dublin and John Daniel are busy building a world and are nearly a year into designing the first classroom of an interactive augmented reality school. The goal is to connect students at home so they can learn from anywhere, while having the resources of the physical classroom available in their virtual world.

After perfecting that first room, the program has grown in leaps and bounds. The students are chipping away at building an entire school within the program, which they hope to have operational before they graduate.

“I want them ready for the future,” Voght said. “Not the jobs we have now, buy he ones we’ll have in five years.”

Twitter: @TMT_Cory


About Innovation Academy

The University of Texas at Tyler Innovation Academy is a public charter school open to students grades three through 10 at its Tyler, Longview and Palestine locations.

It will expand to kindergarten through 11th grade for the 2017-18 school year.

The Tyler location will host a K-2 Info Session for parents interested in enrolling next school year at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 21 at the school, 3900 University Blvd.