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Iowa’s Waukee Innovation and Learning Center May Be a Glimpse into the Future of Education

Michael Nutter

November 28, 2018

The Waukee Community School District’s innovative experiential learning program has garnered attention from public and private dignitaries.

In August 2017, Apple CEO Tim Cook graced the steps of the Iowa State Capitol to announce plans for a nearly $1.4 billion data center in nearby Waukee, Iowa. Shortly after the announcement, Cook and Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds ventured to the 14,000-person Des Moines exurb for a tour of the newly-opened Waukee Innovation and Learning Center (WILC).

Conceived as a permanent home for the Waukee Community School District’s (WCSD) Aspiring Professional Experience (APEX) program, the WILC earned lavish praise from Cook, who, after touring the building, characterized it as “a model for the country.”

Cook isn’t the only high-profile visitor to find their way to the WILC over the past 18 months, however. In March 2018, Advisor to the President Ivanka Trump toured the WILC as part of her ongoing advocacy for skills-based education.

After spending an hour-and-a-half engaging with APEX participants at the WILC, Trump echoed Cook’s praise, commenting, “Our hope is that I can bring this experience back with me to Washington and it can inform our thought process legislatively and administratively to give more students across the country the ability to experience what you have the great fortune of experiencing.”

Regardless of whether Cook’s and Trump’s enthusiasm reflected their genuine feelings or simple pragmatic politesse, what’s clear is that spaces like the WILC — and the APEX program it hosts — will play a significant role in the future of American K-12 education. As trends like competency-based education take the country by storm, it has never been more important to provide students with spaces in which to develop the practical skills they’ll need to succeed in tomorrow’s workplaces.

A Space Purpose-Built for Collaboration

The centerpiece of the WILC’s striking triangular frame is a large coworking space designed to accommodate over 100 people. In addition to the classrooms and labs outfitted with garage-style doors that open onto the coworking space, the WILC boasts an assortment of smaller collaborative spaces, meeting rooms, accelerators, decompression zones, and industry-specific studios.

Each of these areas provides a welcoming, well-resourced environment for the numerous professional mentors who stop by the WILC to work with students on a daily basis. “It’s more than just a building,” explains WCSD Superintendent Cindi McDonald. “It inspires new ideas and encourages natural connections between business partners, students, and educators.”

These connections serve as the cornerstone of the APEX program. Among other things, APEX participants are strongly encouraged to “believe in productive collaboration between education, business, and community, commit to adding value to partnering businesses, and desire to work with other students on problem-based, real-world projects.”

From engineering and finance, banking, and investments to human services and bioscience and value-added agriculture, the WILC hosts a wide variety of APEX courses that hold little in common save a strong emphasis on collaborative, skills-based learning. This experiential approach to education certainly made an impression on Trump, who, in an op-ed published shortly after her visit, wrote, “It was incredible to see firsthand how high school[ers] are solving real-world challenges while learning how to code, program robots, develop electrical and plumbing systems, and pioneer innovations in bioscience.”

Following Waukee’s Lead

Ultimately, school districts hoping to replicate this “incredible” learning environment will need to invest in both innovative spaces and innovative curricula. While Waukee stakeholders are optimistic about the transposability of their experiment, they’re also quick to point out the inseparability of the WILC and APEX.

“Not every high school is ready to jump into this design,” McDonald cautions. “You have to have [the] programming in place that the building needs. Programming is a big part of why this building works for us.”

As such, as districts around the country start to explore alternative education models like Waukee’s, it will become increasingly important for them to maximize the amount of funding they receive from local, state, and federal sources. Doing so begins with proper recordkeeping, which is where a tool like Vinson’s CheckPoint EMIS Platform comes into play. CheckPoint streamlines districts’ data collection, validation, and submission processes, guaranteeing they don’t lose out on any of the funding to which they’re entitled.

As American workplaces continue to evolve in the wake of the digital revolution, it has never been more important for schools to provide students with a distinctly 21st-century education. This requires full funding whether they opt to pursue the Waukee route or not, and Vinson is committed to helping districts throughout Ohio access the resources they need to prepare each and every student for success.

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