On a Thursday night inside a place in Newport News called an innovation laboratory, a half-dozen students were learning about United Nations’ goals for transforming the world.
The students are spending about a month learning about a variety of social and environmental problems while brainstorming ways to raise money to address the challenges in their own communities.
“Kids are so pure in their thoughts, their ideas and their creativity, they just come up with these beautiful ideas,” said Ateba Whitaker, class instructor.
The Brooks Crossing Innovation Lab serves as an instructional hub for science, technology, engineering and mathematics education for people of all ages. It’s a collaboration between Old Dominion University, the City of Newport News and Newport News Shipbuilding to prepare the future local workforce to use new digital technology.
In the early days, the plans for the lab focused on STEM and shipbuilding, but as the community gave feedback, the project evolved to include manufacturing, the recording studio and more of a focus on entrepreneurship.
“We want for individuals in the area to address social problems within their area to incorporate social change — that’s why we have conversations in that class about what you see in your community that you would like to change,” said Mia D. Joe, director of the lab.
It places an emphasis on creating creative solutions to solve real-world problems. Teaching people how to find and solve problems the way inventors do is a path out of poverty, Joe said.
“We’re really kind of the only place of its type to exist in the state because everything that we offer is free — the training, our courses, the materials,” she said.
People don’t need to live in Newport News to use the lab — it’s a regional resource — but Joe said it was situated in the southeast community because it’s an underrepresented and underserved area.
The lab — located at 550 30th Street in southeast Newport News — opened in August 2019 and in its first year was able to serve about 2,500 people. It’s part of a larger facility called The Brooks Crossing Innovation and Opportunity Center.
The pandemic forced it to close its in-person classes and programs for several months but it was still able to reach somewhere around 500 to 700 people in its second year with virtual offerings and by reopening to adults in June 2020.
The lab features a full recording studio, a woodshop, 3D printers and vinyl and laser cutters. It also has several tools including virtual reality headsets, an electronic workbench, a synthesizer, sewing machines and portable DJ and beatmaking equipment.
“(The lab) is kind of like a makers space, but on steroids, because we offer so much more than just STEM education here,” Joe said.
She divides the lab’s focus into four different categories — K-12 STEM education, professional development for STEM educators, advanced manufacturing for workforce development and job readiness.
“It’s not enough just to teach people how to use the equipment,” Joe said. “We also want individuals to be self-sustaining as well. If they’re interested in starting their own business or developing their own product, we want to teach them how to sell that product as well.”
In the social entrepreneurship class, which is offered three times a year at the lab, students spend the first sessions becoming acquainted with the issue and choosing the problem they’d like to solve. They then brainstorm solutions, develop a business idea and create a product they can make at home and sell. They learn how to pitch their ideas and advertise their products.
“(Kids) are sharp. They know what they want to do and they know how they want to sell stuff,” Whitaker said. “They get really excited about the ownership of solving a problem and letting their voice be heard. They understand the problem and they have solutions.”
The lab rotates what age it offers each kind of course to and tries to respond to demand, but if there’s any age group that gets the priority it’s middle school students.
“They’ve identified middle school as the age children really are really perceptive and learn to be interested in STEM,” Joe said. “We have to grab their attention at a young age — some would say waiting until high school is too late because they’ve already decided what they’re interested in.”
Some adults didn’t have the same exposure to STEM education because, for a while, it wasn’t a significant part of public school curriculums, Joe said.
“Somewhere along the way career and technical education really took a backseat to the other academic courses — the basics: math, science, reading, writing — what you didn’t see much in schools were those career and technical education courses,” Joe said. “It created a gap in learning for a good percentage of adults.”
The pandemic made it difficult for the lab to offer large group courses for its equipment, but families and individuals are able to schedule one-on-one training to learn to use the tools and then arrange for time in the lab to work on their own projects. The lab does require anyone operating the tools — such as one that’s used for cutting, drilling and carving in the woodshop — to be at least 16 years old.
Joe says the lab prides itself on staying up-to-date with the latest technology. Virtual reality glasses that were purchased two years ago for the lab have already become obsolete and are incompatible with new applications, so they’ll soon be replaced.
“Technology has a way of making you stay up on it,” Joe said. “We’re an innovation lab — it’s our job to stay at the forefront of innovation and technology.”
The lab offers a variety of programs throughout the year. It is now accepting reservations for a class beginning in late October on footwear design for students 8-12 years old and sew theory and virtual copyrights workshops for adults.
For more information about the lab email email@example.com or call 757-975-5300.
Jessica Nolte, 757-912-1675, firstname.lastname@example.org