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New Life Academy receives grant to accelerate scientific innovation

New Life Academy students Jordan Plante, Andrew Nelson and Lleyton Meier study rocketry as part of the school's STEAM program, Submitted photo courtesy of Shay Motalebi.

Isaac Newton wasn’t in his laboratory when he got the inspiration for his theory of gravity — legend has it that his “Eureka!” moment occurred when he was walking in his mother’s garden in Lincolnshire, England, and saw an apple fall from a tree.

Thinking outside the box — whether that box is a lab or classroom — is driving a new program at New Life Academy in Woodbury.

The school recently was awarded a grant by the Minnesota Independent School Forum to shake up the way students learn science, technology, engineering, arts and math (STEAM) subjects.

The $7,500 grant, the maximum awardeable amount, will go to expanding their 15 Percent Innovation Portfolio Program.

The initiative was inspired by a similar program at 3M, where employees are encouraged to spend 15 percent of their paid time researching a personal project outside their normal workflow.

If that sounds a bit like rainbows and unicorns, consider that the Post-It note was invented on a 3M employee’s “15-percent time.”

New Life Academy students and teachers were on a field to 3M last year when they had their own eureka moment.

“We wanted to discuss renewable energy but they told us about the 15-percent program,” Shay Motalebi, faculty member and STEAM coordinator, said. “They work on a project that personally interests them.”

Since its launch last year, the 15-percent IP has been fully implemented in all the science classes,  Motalebi said. The grant will help them to expand it to other STEAM disciplines.

Money from the grant will be used to purchase robotics kits and rocketry supplies, along with the necessary computer software, kits and equipment for ecological research, tools and equipment for the engineering club, professional training and stipend for participating teachers, and the cost of STEAM events held at school.

A student’s project doesn’t have to be as earth-shaking as Newton’s theory of gravity. They can experiment with everything from baking to developing a robotic prosthetic, Motalebi said.

This hobby-based approach is intended to create a culture of innovation at New Life Academy, she added.

Student projects in the innovation portfolio include: Healing Touch: Physical Effects of Touch on Premature Babies and the Impact of Hearing Loss in Everyday Life.

One student has devoted her 15-percent time on designing storm-proof homes. Motelabi said she was motivated by the devastation of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.

“They usually like what they choose and they work on that outside of the classroom but they spend time in the classroom to get coaching from teachers and feedback from peers,” she said.

William Loeffler

William Loeffler is a playwright and journalist from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He worked 15 years writing features for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He has also written travel stories based on his trips to all seven continents. He and his wife, Michelle, ran the Boston Marathon in 2009. 

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