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Education means more than checking off academic boxes and sending students along. To ensure our students are ready and excited for the careers of tomorrow, we, as educators, must be willing to try new approaches and take informed chances that provide diverse learning opportunities.

When that entrepreneurial drive enters the classroom, students win.

For the past five years, Intermediate Unit 1 (IU1), which supports thousands of students in Greene, Fayette and Washington counties, has collaborated with the Appalachia Partnership Initiative (API) to implement innovative approaches to learning across many of our rural community schools.

Launched with a five-year commitment in 2014, API is a collaborative initiative led by Chevron, the Benedum and Grable Foundations, Catalyst Connection, and the Allegheny Conference. Far from an experiment or pilot program, API has delivered real results and created sustainable, hands-on curriculum that will provide specialized learning opportunities for IU1 students for years to come.

Consider the FabLab, a permanent digital maker space, that was built at our Colonial Campus location in 2015. The FabLab isn’t like the wood shop of the 1960s – it deploys technology like CNC machines and 3-D printers to provide students with interactive learning opportunities. Students have designed and created everything from Bluetooth speakers and phone cases to hospital-grade face shields that are helping protect frontline workers during the coronavirus pandemic.

What makes this FabLab unique, however, is the location. Many questioned the selection of Colonial for the first lab because the school has a large number of alternative education, special education, mental health and emotional support students.

We found success by challenging that mindset and bringing a unique learning approach for students where the traditional classroom setting wasn’t working. Immediately after opening Colonial’s FabLab, attendance increased, disciplinary issues dropped, and creativity flourished. Students who never spoke up in class presented their work; those who struggled with group work found success working alongside others.

Importantly, we saw a shift in the students’ career outlook from jobs in fast food to seeking careers in fabrication and manufacturing.

Since the success of the Colonial Campus FabLab, we have worked with Chevron and API to launch a mobile unit and install a permanent one at our Waynesburg campus. Hands-on learning is now part of all classroom curriculum, ensuring students receive that well-rounded educational experience.

This collaboration and sharing of ideas have brought about other curriculum and classroom advancements, as well. Innovation Grants recognize individual teachers by providing funding to pursue and implement programs aimed at increasing STEM learning opportunities. Schools across the region have implemented national Project Lead the Way programming, which helps to create engaging classroom environments that help students think critically, solve problems, and develop real-world skills.

By helping to deliver specialized learning opportunities, the five-year collaboration among Chevron, foundation leaders, and educators has paid off for thousands of students across our region. And, thanks to API’s forward thinking, many of the programs launched in partnership with IU1 are self-sustaining.

We’ve made considerable strides toward advancing education efforts across Southwestern Pennsylvania. The challenge to develop outside-the-box learning will always be present, but when education leaders, community foundations, and businesses collaborate, we can better prepare our students for the careers of tomorrow.

Don Martin is the executive director of Intermediate Unit 1, a regional educational agency that strives to provide educational support to students, parents, educators, school administrators, and the communities throughout Greene, Fayette and Washington counties.

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