Innovation Challenge Partnership Could Have Impacts Far Beyond Business, Classroom

Innovation Challenge Partnership Could Have Impacts Far Beyond Business, Classroom

As politicians, educators and business owners increasingly strive for increased synergy between students and their future employers, a group of Loudoun residents are spearheading what they believe can be a breakthrough for ongoing collaborations.

During the first-ever Virginia Innovation Challenge, the Loudoun Academy of Engineering and Technology partnered with K2M Group Holdings—a global pioneer in spine surgery research—to expand work-and-learn opportunities that prepare students with the skills they need to attain jobs to compete in today’s global economy. While candidates from both political parties have stressed the need for better partnership between academic institutions and the private sector ahead of the 2017 statewide elections, the events’ organizers have touted this experience as a pioneering, and much-needed, opportunity to bring the two groups together.

“My experience is that we have a lot of bright people in a lot of those spheres, but we need to bring those people together to solve the societal issues and make a better community here,” said K2M Senior Vice President of Operations Dave MacDonald.

The Innovation Challenge featured around 150 ninth grade students from Loudoun’s Academy of Engineering and Technology (AET) divided into small groups. Partnered with a mentor from K2M, the groups worked on solutions to improve treatment for scoliosis, a real-world problem that afflicts millions the company works on alleviating every day.

After 12 weeks of preparation where student groups collected data, conducted research and collaborated with their mentors, they demonstrated product prototypes and solutions to a panel of K2M executives in a “Shark Tank”-styled presentation on May 31. Ostensibly a competition between the AET students, program officials believe this event has larger ramifications across the Commonwealth and nation.

“It’s about learning to cooperate. Everyone now sort of stays in their own lane now,” MacDonald said. “Bringing smart people together to try to create something better is always a great approach.”

Organizers from the school system, K2M and Virginia Chamber of Commerce all said they were impressed by the success of the event and believe it can lead to much needed future collaborations. Virginia Secretary of Technoogy Karen Jackson estimates the Commonwealth has 36,000 open jobs in cyber fields alone, while Gov. Terry McAuliffe has said there are thousands more of unmet positions in other technology industries.

As part of nationwide efforts to better link academic achievement with these private sector needs, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce selected Virginia as one of five partner states to test a pilot program bringing together the private sector and public school students. The Virginia Chamber of Commerce then selected the Loudoun County Chamber of Commerce as one of three regional partners to begin these pilot programs. The chambers then identified K2M, a 300-employee, Leesburg-based global leader in medical technology and research that had previously partnered with Loudoun schools, as a perfect private sector partner.

“Work-based learning is an important component of education. You see a lot of interest in that these days,” said Cyndi Miracle, Virginia Chamber Senior Vice President of Programs. “It’s not just an internship. It flips it and brings the company into the school and you can reach more students and scale it to the students.”

As the Virginia Chamber begins similar initiatives set to launch in Lynchburg and Montgomery County, Miracle said partnering with industry professionals helped motivate and inspire students for the Innovation Challenge.

AET administrators said they were just as excited to be the beneficiaries. Combining elements of math, science and coding, AET principal Tinell Priddy said the partnership with K2M was a fantastic way to end the academy’s first year and expose them to real-world challenges. Set to be consolidated with the newly opened Academies of Loudoun magnet school next fall, Priddy said this has helped position students for success going forward in both their academic and professional careers.

“I’m so excited about what these kids can accomplish already,” Priddy said. “It’s been a great development.”