Foundation series

ARK Foundation Brings Innovation to Schools Pinellas • St Pete Catalyst

Kids and technology are the future, and through a newly formed partnership with Pinellas County Schools, the Innovation Foundation is investing in both.

Founded by Cathie Wood of ARK Invest fame, and with a program powered by ARK research, the mission of the St. Petersburg-based Foundation for Innovation (IF) is to provide education through the prism of technological innovation in everyone’s life, starting with schoolchildren.

In collaboration with Pinellas County Schools (PCS), the nonprofit is launching a new initiative this fall at area colleges to bring STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education to 6th graders. Caitlin Wood, Executive Director of IF and daughter of Cathie, said the overarching goal of the first year of the pilot program was to help kids fall in love with science, build their confidence when studying unknown subjects and realizing that STEM is for everyone.

“So innovation education but also innovation education,” Wood said. “Moving away from this standardized, almost factory model of education and towards individualized learning.”

Carrie Amos, chief executive of IF, explained that when the organization refers to STEM, it focuses on technologically enabled disruptive innovation. Amos echoed one of Cathie’s oft-repeated quotes when she said, “Innovation is the great leveler.”

“It levels the playing field,” she added.

Amos explained that even before the IF became a non-profit, ARK was piloting some of the same programs and realized that education benefited and brought together socio-economically disadvantaged students, English language learners, high achievers and everyone in between.

In addition to leveling the playing field across demographics, Amos noted that “this is the way the world is.”

Society’s intersection with technology continues to increase exponentially, and the pandemic has only exacerbated the rapid changes. Just look at the surge in electric vehicles, Zoom meetings, and the ability to order the week’s groceries via phone and have them delivered to your doorstep within hours to see this unfold.

“We are disturbed by some of these technologies, whether we like it or not,” Amos said. “We want everyone – starting with students – to be on the right side of change.

“Because changes are happening.”

Ramani DeAlwis, IF Education Manager for Middle Schools, discusses the innovative STEM-based curriculum with an educator.

The pilot program will begin with six colleges, and Amos said IF specifically requested that they represent the different demographics of Pinellas County. These include Bay Point Middle and IB magnate James B. Sanderlin’s school in St. Petersburg, as well as Seminole, Pinellas Park, Palm Harbor and Carwise colleges.

In addition to STEM foundations, IF will eventually incorporate programming around topics such as artificial intelligence, robotics, genomics, efficient energy storage, and blockchain technology.

When Cathie Wood decided to move her successful investment firm from New York to St. Pete, Amos explained, she made it a point to meet with various community leaders. During a meeting, the Founder met with former Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran and PCS Superintendent Dr. Michael Grego.

They began discussing educational opportunities, including IF starting her own school. According to Amos, Grego told the nonprofit’s leadership that bringing their programming to public schools was the best course if they wanted to have a meaningful impact on a diverse group of students.

“We’ve all thought about this and realized it’s actually very true,” Amos said.

Through a series of meetings, Amos shared the vision for the IF and provided educational insight to county and school leaders. She said PCS opened its doors to the organization and felt a real sense of partnership right from the start.

“They said, ‘We really want to partner with you,’ and then we started the process from there about a year ago.”

Caitlin Wood said one of the goals of the program was empowerment. IF not only wants students to know where society is going, but also to realize that they can become leaders in a changing world.

Amos explained that as a pilot program, the first year is more about innovative thinking and less about disruptive innovation. She wants IF to foster a new mindset that identifies problems and uses innovation to create solutions.

“Making a mistake or failing is not bad if we can learn and grow from it,” she said.

Equally important, Amos said, is to empower and equip teachers and educators with an innovative mindset.

“Teachers…have been through the last two years with the pandemic,” Amos said. “We want to celebrate and honor them, but also help empower them to do what they went to school to do.

“And why they got into schools in the first place is to help children think and discoverand so the teacher training component of what we do is equally important.

Wood called the reception to the initiative overwhelmingly positive and credited Grego and new superintendent Kevin Hendricks for being open about the district’s need to pivot and expand its vision of what they should include in the program. PCS.

Wood noted some initial hesitation among teachers due to the arrival of other organizations with good intentions but failed to implement meaningful change. She said personal conversations had dispelled doubt, with IF expressing her desire to work collaboratively with educators based on their needs.

“It’s not, ‘we know exactly what you all have to do,'” Wood said. “No. It’s, ‘you know exactly what you all have to do.’

” How can we help you ? »

Many teachers, Wood added, have been invigorated by the prospects of the new initiative. She said many explained that the change in structure was how they originally saw themselves as an educator.

Amos said three teachers were planning to retire and changed their minds because they wanted to help implement the new curriculum.

“That says a lot – not about IF, not about us – but about partnering to help students thrive and thrive in a changing environment,” Amos said.

On June 22, IF will host several interested community members and potential donors or friends — “I like to say we’re raising friends, not funds,” Amos said — to watch the Tampa Bay Rays take on the Yankees. New York.

With kids graduating from high school, Amos still splits her time between the New York area and St. Pete, despite promising to root for the Rays.

“We’re also excited to have a second box, and we’ve invited every teacher and administrator in the district who is part of our pilot project,” Amos announced.

“One of the principals from one of the schools we partner with will be interviewed live on the Jumbotron during the game.”

Innovation Foundation staff and PCS teachers discuss plans for the pilot program that will launch at six area colleges in August. DeAlwis is seated at the head of the table and, in the right corner, is Mary Zeman, head of early childhood education at the foundation.

Wood called the IF’s mission a virtuous circle that consists of a symbiotic relationship between education, mentorship, partnership and funding. She said each component could stand on its own, but they were much more effective when working together and feeding off each other.

The vision, Wood said, is to reach children at an early age and continue to expand innovative education in high school and college. Many of these students could become teachers and return to primary schools where they discovered a passion for STEM.

Wood said conversations with the University of South Florida College of Education to continue strengthening this virtuous cycle are well underway. Amos said she would go so far as to call USF a partner. She thanked Dr. David Rosengrant, professor of STEM at the St. Pete campus, and Dr. R. Anthony Rolle, dean of the College of Education, for their openness to collaborating.

Amos said she invited the two educators and their loved ones for the June 22 game “because it’s a partnership, we know it’s not all about us.”

“It takes a village, and USF uniting with Pinellas County is the start of a village,” Amos said. “There are so many people in St. Pete and organizations who care so much about education.

“We are one piece of this larger puzzle, and as we come together, we realize how this disruptive innovation program is going to help students – to make our community at St. Pete a better place.”