Inspire Innovation Lab moves to new home
Carrie Leopold, founder of the Inspire Innovation Lab, helps a young student with a hands-on learning project. (Photos/Inspire Innovation Lab.)
Nancy Edmonds Hanson
When Carrie Leopold got an eviction letter from her landlord in mid-November, the future of her Inspire Innovation Lab was never really in danger. The determined educator herself would see to that. But where the innovative STEM-oriented school program would carry on in 2023 was an open question.
She turned the community upside down looking for affordable spaces to no avail. Then, one week before Christmas, “I got the best Christmas present ever,” she says — contact with the landlord of the Townsite Center at 810 Fourth Ave. S. She turned out to have just the right spot for the thriving day and after-school programs, and was willing to help fit up the space in short order.
And so, by mid-January, the 60 or so children — from kindergarten through 8th grade — who are enrolled in Leopold’s full-time and after-school programs will continue the boisterous, creative style of learning that’s a hallmark of the Innovation Lab … bringing education back to the 100-year-old building that originally housed Moorhead High School.
The program is in the process of moving into what was once the MHS gymnasium and theater on the first floor of the Townsite, a space recently vacated by Migrant Health Services. A troop of willing helpers — parents, teachers, community volunteers — has been at work since Christmas in the old Red Owl grocery store that the program has occupied for the past six years. They’re sorting and boxing up books, supplies and equipment for the move across town. “People have been coming out of the woodwork to help us,” says Leopold, who calls herself the school’s chief nerd. “It’s humbling. It’s amazing.” It reflects, too, the respect for the Innovation Lab’s approach to education, often a perfect fit for students who struggle in traditional classrooms.
Leopold, whose degrees include a doctorate in educational research, built the program from the ground up based on her observations during years of teaching in high school and college. She was working with the North Dakota College of Science as its STEM outreach coordinator when she began dreaming of what became the groundwork for the innovation lab. “My job was to seek out grants and set up science, technology, engineering and math programs around the state,” she explains. “But time after time, I watched the programs disappear when the grants ran out.
“There had to be a better way. I figured that if I could do this with no money, it should never go away.”
She quit her job in 2014 to test out that assumption, and to bring the community what she calls “experiential learning.” She started with supplies she’d squirreled away in her garage and bartered for space in the Center Mall, offering a menu of STEM classes and workshops. After two years, she moved to the old supermarket at 423 Main to initiate an ambitious schedule of morning and all-day summer camps. That grew into the after-school program that now enrolls 42 kids in K-8 (with a lengthy waiting list).
In September 2020 she took the third step. “You could say it was ignited by COVID-19,” she says. “Kids had been doing online school. When the schools reopened in person, it was very apparent that some kids were struggling.” Based on that observation, she says, “I decided to take the leap.”
That first year, the Inspire Innovation Lab enrolled its six students; one year later, there were 8. Now in its third year, 18 are engaged in the lab’s project-based learning.
Most are considered neurodiverse — that is, they face learning challenges including autism and ADHD. Others suffer the aftereffects of childhood trauma. Leopold, who has a knack for not taking herself too seriously, calls her school “the land of misfits,” not as a pejorative, but because both students and teachers have unique strengths and challenges. She treasures a remark, though, from one of her students’ enthusiastic parent, who dubbed them something quite different: “neurodiverse heroes.”
Classes meet four days a week, Tuesday through Friday. Mondays are reserved for kids who need extra help or more time to work on projects; the day may also be devoted to accelerated learning. There’s no grading; each student works at his or her own pace. No homework is assigned, other than reading.
The Inspire Lab’s environment, Leopold says, is similar to the one-room schools of the past. “Older students often help the younger ones. They work together on their projects,” she says. Mornings are spent studying language arts and math. After lunch, students focus on hands-on projects, usually working in teams. They design their projects themselves, first researching and sorting out what they need to do to move forward, then taking the steps to bring the pieces together.
One recent project explored entrepreneurship through creating and planning how to operate of a taco truck. The children developed a menu, priced out the ingredients, designed the truck and put together a marketing plan. A local taco-truck operator came in to talk with them about her business. Then they set out on another quest to develop their own unique products and present them to a crowd of parents in the style of the TV show “Shark Tank.” Among their brainstorms: a tongue-shaped sponge to wash your face like a pet dog or cat licking your cheeks, and a device to pave sidewalks. Along the way, students learned to use Google Sketchup software and operate a 3-D printer.
“It’s not about the product in the end,” Leopold cautions. “It’s about figuring out the steps to take to get there.”
One girl summed up the lab’s approach perfectly. She told her teacher, “There’s no such thing as a project that’s done, because you can always improve on it.”
Leopold beams, comparing that with her own approach to shaping the future of the Inspire Innovation Lab: “As a teacher, you need to be able to let go and see where they end up. You never know what’s going to happen. You have to be okay with that.”
For more information about the lab and its programs, go to www.inspireinnovationlab.org. The site also includes a link for donations.