If you didn’t know better, you’d think the projects are funded by global foundations led by billionaire philanthropists — Bill and Melinda Gates or Warren Buffett, perhaps — and the research conducted by PhDs with deep pockets. But at the new Tempe Union High School District Innovation Center, the work is financed by the district and its Arizona business partners, and a surprising demographic — teenagers — are tackling real-world topics.
“Our students are very capable,” said Christine Barela, executive director of the district’s Innovation Programs. “They are very invested in technology, and they know that things are happening in the world, both very good and very bad. We felt they needed the opportunity to come together and provide real solutions.”
The Innovation Center, which Barela said is the first among Arizona high school districts and is especially unique because of its two dozen business partners, exists to produce future-ready learners. “We have to be visionary because we don’t even know today what jobs will be out there for our students,” she said. “That means them being academically sound, but also having other skills as innovation leaders and learners — problem solving, resilience, agility, integrity, initiative and empathy.”
After two years of planning, which involved designing the space, building the curriculum, obtaining buy-in from the district’s five high schools, and soliciting the business community for support and project ideas, the Innovation Center opened in July in the former Compadre High space at the district’s headquarters. Five days a week, 89 sophomores, juniors and seniors, some with Individualized Education Program plans (IEPs) and some in honors or Advanced Placement classes, spend part of their day at the center, collaborating on 40 projects. They are bussed back and forth to their home high schools, where they take regular classes, and also have career exploration, English Language Arts, science and social studies, business and interdisciplinary studies courses at the center.
Each student makes a year-long commitment, and earns three credits toward graduation. In teams of four to six, the students are studying the force bite of snakes and saving the bees for the Phoenix Zoo, biodegradable alternatives to foam stuffed inside the oversized hats made by Phoenix-based Noggin Boss, and preserving Southwestern seeds with Native Seed/SEARCH, a conservation organization in Tucson. They gather in a maker space with drill presses, 3D printers, a welding machine and other equipment for prototyping, a creation lab with sewing and embroidery machines, a library with comfy chairs, bean bags and couches, and common spaces to research vendors and project costs. A $10,000 grant from Raytheon built a podcast studio with state-of-the-art cameras, microphones and laptops.
Olivia Winsor, a Tempe High junior, and Cailynn Gaskin, a Desert Vista High junior, are working with Native Seed/SEARCH. It conserves and promotes crop diversity in support of sustainable farming and food security. It also finds, protects and preserves the seeds of the people of the Greater Southwest to benefit and nourish a changing world. Their team plans to build a 4,000-square-foot farm behind the center and plant only native cultivars. Many of the seeds are genetically resistant to heat, drought and poor soil conditions, and need preserving for future generations, Gaskin said. They also are studying alternative uses to the Jack Bean that could solve issues with blowing dust.
“Oh my gosh, this is exactly what education should be — students learning to critically think and work on problems that have real-world applications,” said Winsor, 16. For Gaskin, also 16, the experience already is changing her career aspirations, from math teacher to perhaps an engineer. “(She’s interested in) applying math and doing something with more value to it than just being on paper,” she said. A big change in Winsor is how she now prefers to think, question, answer, research and present findings — no longer alone. “Before, I wouldn’t have considered myself someone who likes groups projects. I would avoid that,” she said. “I like being able to collaborate and work together now. And I would love to have an impact on the world.”
For more information about the Innovation Center, including the ’24-’25 school year, visit www. tempeunion.org/Innovation-Center.