The Journal Gazette
Monday, October 18, 2021 1:00 am

Five questions for Riley Johnson

Director, Amp Lab at Electric Works

EDITORIAL BOARD | The Journal Gazette

1 You'll be the first to oversee Amp Lab at Electric Works when it opens in August. What has planning been like?

I like to think of it as controlled chaos. Amp Lab at Electric Works is opening as a half-day program focused on innovation for 400 total 11th- and 12th-graders from the five FWCS high schools. ... Building something from scratch is never an easy task, but it has been a blessing to be involved. Knowing we will open in August of 2022 gives me a tangible target to make sure all the pieces that need to be in place before students arrive.

The nuanced part is having to wear all of the various hats simultaneously. Whether it is building relationships with community partners, making sure we have the right furniture and equipment lined up or working with schools to recruit students, new layers or components come into the picture all the time. ... My role is to make sure all the pieces are in the best place it can be for the team and students to bring it to life and iterate upon the experience once we launch.


2 What's your vision for the new school, which will feature a science, technology, engineering, art and math curriculum?

Since inception, unpacking and empowering the student experience has been at the forefront of our work. The vision really builds on a couple of key questions: How do we make this experience feel as little like “school” as possible? And how do we let students live in the real world, not just emulate it? ... Being located at such an innovative place like Electric Works really sets the stage for the program to look and feel different.

The Amp Lab ... marries entrepreneurial mindsets and processes with industry (STEAM) skill sets and tools to both examine problems our community faces and try to create solutions to problems we don't know exist yet. Students will have the opportunity to work with local businesses and organizations ... to actually unpack real problems. At any given time, we might have students working with the local health industry to tackle challenges pediatric patients face, partnering with local nonprofits to analyze how urban farming can help eliminate food deserts or creating a marketing campaign for a local mom-and-pop business.

We really see Amp Lab as a catalyst for evolving what workforce development can be, as well as trying to give permission for our students to not have to wait to be pioneers and innovators.


3 You were one of the first teachers at New Tech Academy at Wayne High School and later principal at New Tech Network's flagship school in California. Tell us a bit about the New Tech approach to education.

... The New Tech model focuses on three core beliefs that differentiate it from many traditional experiences. At the forefront, there is a keen focus on creating a culture that empowers. This is done by truly honoring and uplifting the role of the student in owning their learning and their school experience.

Utilizing pedagogy that engages students is also at the foundation of a New Tech school. You see this realized through project-based learning. ...(H)igh-quality PBL can transform how students engage with their learning, and the New Tech model has always strived for this.

Lastly, you see the New Tech model measuring outcomes that matter beyond the traditional metrics. ... By measuring 21st century skills, student engagement and post-secondary persistence, many New Tech schools are able to shift the conversation around what it means for students to learn and see academic success.

... As we launch Amp Lab, models like the New Tech Network and exemplary schools throughout the country have helped inform decisions we have made. In that same breath, we are excited to see Amp Lab stand on its own merits and bring a new experience for students to engage with in our community.


4 How did your earlier work shape your vision for what high school education can and should be?

I have been blessed to work with and visit schools around the country and in places like India, Brazil, South Korea and Finland. I feel like I have come to three main takeaways in what high school education can and should be.

First, I think there is a misnomer that if learning is fun, then it is too easy. ... Learning can and should be exciting and enjoyable. With that being said, I believe that all students deserve complex, challenging, authentic work. Many times, the work students are asked to do is pretend or only for an audience of one. In the best schools, I have seen students see meaning and a greater purpose in their work when it is real and involves an external partner. Lastly, I have seen that when students' passions, interests and skills are identified and ignited instead of extinguished, students can reach heights we can't even imagine.

My hope is that Amp Lab can be a place where all three of these things can come together for students. ... Amp Lab ... brings elements from a variety of contexts ... all together to create a new experience our community has never imagined before.


5 What should students – and the community – expect from Amp Lab in its first year?

I think both students and the greater Fort Wayne community can expect Amp Lab to be an exciting learning ecosystem that does its best to elevate the role students play in our city. Students will be challenged to unlearn many preconceived notions of what school is and to learn new ways that the intersection of school, entrepreneurial thinking and community development can co-create together.

... We know that we aren't going to have all of the answers in the first year (or ever), but we do know that if we build an agile and lean experience, students will have the opportunity to destigmatize what failure means, solve real problems with real partners, and build a portfolio that will launch them into whatever their chosen path after high school is.

... Our goal in year one is to really focus on developing a return on investment for the community. The community can help us create meaningful opportunities for individuals, businesses and organizations to build relationships with students and engage them to solve complex problems. In return, we believe that ... Fort Wayne will get 400 students eager and ready to become the next innovators that shape the future of our city.

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