Kirkwood, University of Iowa forge new ground with joint facility

Regional center will offer expanded opportunities

Diane Heldt
Published: October 22 2012 | 8:15 am - Updated: 1 April 2014 | 2:19 am in

A planned joint building between Kirkwood Community College and the University of Iowa will bring together educators from the university, community college and kindergarten through 12th-grade levels, in a model that officials say is something completely different on the national scene.

The Kirkwood Regional Center at the University of Iowa, expected to open in fall 2015 on the UI’s Oakdale campus in Coralville, will offer career academies and college-level courses to area high school students from at least six districts. That part of the center is similar to other Kirkwood regional center models.

But one thing that sets this planned facility apart is the involvement of the UI, officials said. The university will bring its strengths and resources to the center, and be a part of the effort to really coordinate research and educational improvement across the K-12, community college and university lines, officials said.

“We’re really plowing a lot of new ground in what we’re trying to do here,” said Jordan Cohen, the former UI vice president for research and economic development who is now a special associate to the provost.

“We talk a lot about silos in education and how these entities often work separately. The most exciting thing about this, really, is this ability to connect what’s going on in K-12 with what the community colleges are already doing with what the university should be doing, to make it more of a continuum.”

The UI involvement brings more facets to the regional center model, Kirkwood leaders said.

The location of the facility at the UI research park allows the involvement of cutting-edge companies there, and the opportunity to use UI resources like the National Driving Simulator and the Iowa Hygienic Lab.

“The university brings so much uniqueness to a project like this,” said Jon Weih, director of student services/student life at Kirkwood’s Iowa City campus and interim director of the new regional center.

Some of the “many rich things” the university brings the table include expertise in teaching development and testing and connections with science and technology-focused industries, Weih said.

MONTICELLO CENTER

Kirkwood Jones Regional Education Center, the college’s first such center, opened in fall 2009 in Monticello. It now partners with eight area school districts and serves about 250 high school students with career academy programs and college-level courses. Kirkwood regional centers in Linn County and Washington County are slated to open in fall 2013 and fall 2014, respectively.

A big aspect of the regional center concept is partnering with local school districts to offer courses and college-level work in science, technical and engineering fields.

High schoolers can take courses in subjects like advanced manufacturing, architecture and construction, engineering, biomedical and information technology and health sciences. The students earn college credit — at no cost to them — under this model.

The regional centers don’t want to push out area high school programs, but rather they partner with the schools to offer coursework that oftentimes otherwise isn’t available, Lisa Folken, assistant director of the Jones Regional Education Center, said. It has become too costly for many smaller districts, especially, to provide the equipment and multiple class sections needed in these subject areas, Folken said, or perhaps they don’t have the student demand. But by pulling multiple districts together in one central, modern site, there is enough demand and resources for the programs, all under one roof where students spend half their school day, she said.

Students get exposure to college-level courses and potential careers, Folken said. At Jones Regional Center, students graduate from high school with anywhere from nine to 50 college credits earned, she said.

“Talk about a huge cost savings,” she said.

COLLEGE PREPARTION

That’s how Jones Regional Center benefitted Michaela Fortman, who started as a full-time nursing student at Kirkwood this fall after graduating from Monticello High School. Fortman earned 30 college credits in two years at Jones Regional, filling general requirements like introductory psychology and taking more specialized classes like the health sciences academy and biotechnical engineering.

“Right now I think everybody knows that college is really expensive,” she said. “Thirty credits, that’s a steal.”

The experience also was helpful in preparing her for college-level work and time management, Fortman said.

The Kirkwood Regional Center at the UI is expected to draw about 500 students from the six area school districts so far signed on as partners: Iowa City, Clear Creek-Amana, Solon, West Branch, Tipton and College Community.

The UI is giving the land, valued at about $2 million, for the 92,000-square-foot building. Proceeds from a Kirkwood bond issue passed last fall will pay for the $22 million facility.

STEM HUB

Because of the focus on science, technology, engineering and math-related fields, the center also will be home to one of the state’s six regional STEM hubs, part of a statewide initiative to deliver and improve STEM education for K-12 students in Iowa. Grant Wood Area Education Agency also will have a presence at the regional center.

All those connections and opportunities for collaboration will benefit UI faculty and graduate students, Kirkwood faculty, the high school students taking classes at the center, and K-12 educators throughout the state who can learn from the models studied there, Cohen said.

“This focuses a university program like ours a little bit more on what is the applied community benefit and impact of our research,” he said. “This is very practical, community-based research.”

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