FRANKFORT — The University of Kentucky is launching a new laboratory to develop innovative ways to educate students from pre-school through graduate programs.
UK will invest $1.5 million over three years on the P20 Innovation Lab, which will serve as a melting pot in which school leaders, teachers and students from all levels across Kentucky can mix with professors in all of UK's 17 colleges. ("P" stands for preschool, and "20" stands for the numeral grade assigned to a postgraduate degree.)
The lofty goals: figure out ways to incorporate new technology in teaching; help bridge gaps between what students know when they graduate from high school and what universities and employers expect them to know; and shake up conventional teaching and classroom formats.
"It's really going to give us the capacity to customize teaching to individual students and their needs," said Robert L. King, president of the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education.
P20 will be the latest connection between the public school system and higher education, which traditionally have kept their agendas separate. That began to change several years ago when public universities stepped up their outreach to schools in their areas and picked up speed in the last year as new education leaders were hired and lawmakers demanded more cooperation.
For instance, the Council on Postsecondary Education under King and the Department of Education under Terry Holliday are working together on new math and science standards for the schools as directed by the General Assembly's Senate Bill 1 in 2009. King and Holliday have each been on the job for about a year.
"We, in Kentucky, can get everybody in a room," UK President Lee T. Todd Jr. said after the press conference announcing the lab. "That doesn't happen in a lot of states."
UK's dean of the College of Education, Mary John O'Hair, brought the concept with her when she was hired last year from the University of Oklahoma, which created a similar center in 1995.
"It's about ... translating it to their classroom and working directly with their students to help them think like a scientist to investigate, to experiment using a scientific model," O'Hair said.
That should apply to professors, teachers, school leaders and students. Professors and teachers can act like scientists by researching and testing different styles, approaches and use of Web sites, computers and even video games to help them in the classroom, she said. Schools need to produce students who can think like scientists, because that's what universities and employers want, she said.
The lab will explore improving other areas of education, including student health and wellness, motivation, early childhood development and community engagement in education.
One of its first projects will be to bring principals, school board members and superintendents from across Kentucky to start experimenting with new teaching and learning techniques.
"A lot of approaches have gone through the teachers, so you have little classrooms of excellence where those teachers have gotten it," said Justin Bathon, a UK professor of educational leadership studies. "But frequently, those teachers are in districts that aren't collaboratively embracing those approaches."
The leaders must fully invest in not only buying technology for students but setting up classrooms for students to best use and learn with that technology, Bathon said.
That includes using online social networking sites and mobile computers, ranging from laptops to iPods to the new iPad that Apple announced last week.
Kentucky's effort likely will build on work done at Oklahoma's K20 Center for Educational and Community Renewal on educational video games, O'Hair said.
"Digital game-based learning, we call it," she said, correcting a reporter.
For instance, at Oklahoma's K20 Center, researchers developed a computer role-playing game in which students create a civilization on an uninhabited island by gathering resources and food. Teachers used the game to spin off science reports, journal entries and technical presentations.
The result is a lesson in problem solving wrapped in the refining of math, science, social studies, language arts and communication skills, O'Hair said.
Jean Cates, the executive director of Oklahoma's K20 Center, said some of the most sweeping changes as a result of the center's work are happening in classrooms.
"As teachers begin to collaborate together, that opens up their ability to allow their students to collaborate," Cates said. "You will see flexible groups. No rows of desks. Instead, the chairs would be arranged in groups."
Phillip Rogers, executive director of the Education Professional Standards Board, said Tuesday he has high hopes for the UK lab to help teachers be "nimble and flexible."
"The innovation labs are going to assist us in moving that dream forward of an army of teachers in the 21st century who are able to teach every student and teach them well so that they are ready for career and college," he said.