February 27, 2017

Eleven years later: Celebrating the TGR Learning Lab

One of my proudest moments was the day the TGR Learning Lab opened its doors. It was the culmination of nearly 18 months of research, planning and training — and frankly, I was a nervous wreck. 

Instinctively, my experience was telling me that formal education was too routine for students — and that their aptitude for learning was growing outside the comfort zone of most teachers. Providing a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching kids wasn’t working. Apathy was building in front of my eyes as I was witness to student feelings of indifference toward learning and hopelessness that any adult understood what they needed. As we prepared to open the doors, dozens of questions flooded my brain, but only one kept me from sleeping the night before: Will this work?

As the bus pulled up, I remember welcoming each student as they came through the door, a diverse group representing all segments of the community, mirroring the various neighborhoods we serve. Many went upstairs to academic support — a place where students are able to work on homework individually or in groups. Others went to the café to get a healthy snack and unwind from the day. Still more explored the driving range and picked up a golf club for the very first time.

I proceeded to walk through the building, observing staff interactions with the kids. We had spent hours discussing what success looked like in these interactions. We viewed this strengths-based approach as a key component to our program where intentional interactions build resiliency and student agency, meaning that students become empowered and learning is enabled as a result. These concepts are just as important today. Creating an environment where students recognize that adults care about them builds trust and allows learning to take place. As I ascended the stairs, I heard students laughing and talking about their day. I took note that students from completely different schools across the city were discussing a physics assignment. A lump in my throat grew as I realized that what we had hoped to see was materializing in every area of the Learning Lab.  

One room was full of kids placed in pairs and each set engaged in a different hands-on activity. I saw teams of students designing the perfect suspension bridge, others learning to cook with solar power and two girls caught my eye as they were assembling a small motherboard that would eventually send power to a bank of lights. This type of authentic learning was new to them and the excitement in each room was palpable. 

I noticed a boy who had participated in our soft opening a few weeks before. He was a student at the school across the street, dressed in attire that was popular with students who are gang affiliated. I watched him carefully assemble the fuselage of the rocket and asked him to tell me about his work. He carefully and eloquently explained his project. He discussed what he was learning in his physics class at school — and smiled a little as he revealed that being able to put the rocket together actually had made him understand a recent lecture on how the design will reach its apogee.  

As the day came to a close I was exhausted, but more motivated than ever to build upon what we started. We had promised to remain nimble and flexible so that it was easy to adjust and develop programs to meet the changing needs of our students. We pledged to work closely with local schools to ensure that our efforts were complementary to what was being taught in the classroom. Our hope was to continue to grow, design and develop programs that met the needs of students in a rapidly changing world.  

Looking ahead, our passion for making an impact on young people is expanding to a worldwide audience. Recently, TGR Edu: Explore was launched as a way to help educators, families and students gain direct access to our proven curriculum and activities. While our STEM lessons and workshops have been made available to educators for several years regionally, the online platform now provides new ways for educators to follow our progress, receive training and try our innovations in their classrooms. Moreover, self-paced modules are giving young people the tools to pursue higher education directly through College Blueprint and Financial Aid units that have helped countless young people understand their options for life after high school.  

We continue to believe that all students deserve the opportunity to pursue their dreams and make important contributions to their community. I hope you will follow our progress and join us in this important work.

Learn more about the unique programs of the TGR Learning Lab.

Champions of the unexpected.