Kirkwood’s name may get top billing on the sign in front of the community college’s fourth regional center, which formally opened with great fanfare Thursday, but beating in the heart of the 100,000-square-foot building is a strong University of Iowa presence.

On the lower level of the Kirkwood Regional Center at the University of Iowa, located next to the National Advanced Driving Simulator in the UI Research Park, is 5,000 square feet of dedicated UI interactive learning and office space that’s been thrumming with activity since the beginning of the fall semester. (Visitors will know they’ve arrived at Hawkeye country by the fiberglass Herky, banners, and panoramic shots of campus adorning the area.)

The UI Colleges of Education and Engineering and the UI Tippie College of Business are collaborating to connect UI faculty, teachers-in-training, high school STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) students, UI research assets, and area businesses and industries to help prepare Iowa high school students for high-demand, high-tech, 21st-century careers. Photo by Tim Schoon.

There, the UI Colleges of Education and Engineering and the Tippie College of Business are collaborating to connect UI faculty, teachers-in-training, high school STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) students, UI research assets, and area businesses and industries to help prepare Iowa high school students for high-demand, high-tech, 21st-century careers. 

The center also offers opportunities to enhance UI teacher training and observe how higher education can better support young Iowans who want to become tomorrow’s highly skilled workers and researchers.

The center focuses on High School Career Academies, partial day, on-site experiences where students explore careers while earning high school and college credit at no cost. About 310 high schools students—mostly juniors and seniors—have enrolled in academies at the center this fall to study engineering, business, software development, health care, technical fields, and other topics.

"The Kirkwood Regional Center is an excellent example of a powerful and innovative partnership."

—Nicholas Colangelo
UI College of Education Dean

The only one of Kirkwood’s four regional centers to be connected to a university, the center exemplifies the UI commitment to keep higher education affordable. Last year, Kirkwood’s career academies saved nearly 5,000 high school students almost $5 million in community college tuition.

“The Kirkwood Regional Center is an excellent example of a powerful and innovative partnership,” says UI College of Education Dean Nicholas Colangelo.

Kirkwood President Mick Starcevich agreed.

“The new regional center is a progression of our longstanding relationship with the University of Iowa,” he said. “It is a conduit for STEM education for students and faculty alike.”

Nexus of STEM efforts

Colangelo, founder and former director of the Belin-Blank International Center for Gifted Education and Talent Development, said one example of the collaboration already taking place at the center is the STEM Innovator Business Innovation course designed by faculty from the College of Education, the John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center (JPEC), and the Tippie College of Business. Another is a pre-education academy that gives area high school students interested in a career in education an opportunity to meet College of Education faculty.

Colangelo said the center’s location, both geographically in the research park and academically at the nexus of STEM efforts by local schools, Kirkwood, the UI, and the Governor’s Office, holds the promise for even more fruitful collaborations down the road.

Southeast Iowa STEM Hub Manager Kristine Bullock said the facility provides a unique platform for exposing students to STEM careers through the partners in the research park and resources within the center. 

Providing opportunities for next generation

“We know that 96 percent of Iowans believe advancements in STEM will provide more opportunities to the next generation, and this partnership provides access for all students no matter their school or district,” she said.

Mark McDermott, clinical associate professor in science education and STEM coordinator with the UI College of Education, said this center is unique among the four regional centers Kirkwood operates around the state (the other three are in Linn, Jones, and Washington counties).

The center bristles with high-tech features, from solar panels that help power the building, to welding and faculty equipment simulators, health care labs, and robotic workshops. It’s also home to the Iowa College Access Network (ICAN) and the Governor’s Southeast Regional STEM Hub.

McDermott said the UI’s classrooms are technologically enhanced, with distance education capabilities and—in one of the rooms—tables connected via network to monitors so teams can display their work to classmates up front in real time.

Parlaying tech skills into jobs, entrepreneurial ventures

As groundbreaking as the technology, he said, the real cutting-edge work is taking the form of unique courses under development, including the STEM Innovator Business Innovation course, which is being offered this fall as part of Kirkwood’s Computer Software Design Career Academy.

Leslie Flynn, a clinical associate professor in science education and administrator of STEM initiatives at the UI College of Education’s Belin-Blank Center, and Dawn Bowlus, director of  the Jacobson Institute for Youth Entrepreneurship at JPEC, secured grant money to develop curriculum for the course with input from area K-12 teachers and more than 40 industry partners.

Taught by a Kirkwood faculty member in collaboration with Bowlus and Flynn, the class helps high school students think about how they might parlay their tech skills into jobs and entrepreneurial ventures.

“Watching our local STEM industry partners work alongside teams of students to solve real problems is inspirational,” Bowlus said. “The regional center offers the opportunity for STEM Innovator to explore the impact that business and education partnerships have on student engagement, career exploration, and economic development. Based on the positive response from students and STEM industry partners, we are already working to replicate this model across Iowa.”

Flynn said the STEM Innovator's Business Innovation class works in teams to design innovative solutions to community problems by working side-by-side with industry leaders.

“For example UI Hospitals and Clinics and the National Advanced Driving Simulator are working with a team addressing the problem of ATV safety,” she said. “Some of the largest benefits to our community are that students have the opportunity to build their network, increase their STEM problem solving abilities, and establish Iowa as a place for great career opportunities before graduating from high school.”

The effort that went into developing the curriculum isn’t lost on the students, including Dylan Sharp, an Iowa City West High School senior and student in the STEM Innovator Business Innovation class. 

“Most courses give you problems and have only one correct answer,” Sharp said. “But with this course I have awesome opportunities to go out into the community, interact and make connections with local entrepreneurs and business leaders. I get to help solve problems that are interesting to me, help businesses, and provide opportunities to explore how real businesses think and operate.”

Partnerships already paying off

In addition to the collaborations among the UI colleges of education, business, and engineering, education faculty are partnering with Kirkwood faculty in the Lab Sciences and Pre-Education academies. 

“College of Education students are being placed in courses at the center for field experiences, and several professional development activities and conferences are already planned,” said McDermott, who is teaching a methods class to aspiring teachers at the center this fall. “The partnerships associated with the center are already paying off in terms of learning opportunities for secondary and post-secondary students, and opportunities to help shape STEM teaching throughout our state are emerging.”

Tonya Peeples, associate dean for diversity and outreach and professor of chemical and biochemical engineering, said the College of Engineering is excited to be part of the center.

“Project Lead The Way activities and collaborative contributions of diversity and K-12 outreach are already taking place at the center, and we look forward to expanding offerings that engage STEM learners in pre-engineering activities,” she said.

UI Provost P. Barry Butler has played a key role in shepherding the project from the beginning and, in the early stages of planning, worked closely with former UI Vice President for Research and Economic Development Jordan Cohen to help conceptualize how space and programming might support collaboration.

“This is a wonderful example of many different entities working together for the common good,” Butler said. “I’m very proud to have been part of this project.”