Brophy's Innovation Commons Inspires Creativity and Service

By Brigid Barry Skoog

"Let's make better mistakes tomorrow."

This is how Jim Bopp ended each Introduction to his Innovative Technologies class, a required course for freshmen designed to introduce them to the resources available in Brophy College Preparatory's Innovation Commons.

Bopp, who was also the assistant principal for technology and instruction before leaving Phoenix to become principal at Creighton Prep in Omaha, Neb., explained his daily declaration this way: "The idea is that anytime you're learning something totally new and anytime you're creating something you've never made before, mistakes are completely inevitable, especially when there's no one telling you exactly how it's supposed to be done.

"Unlike a traditional classroom where mistakes equate to lost points and lower grades, in this class they can be a badge of progress, as long as today's mistakes are better than yesterday's. If you set the bar so low that you don't make mistakes, then you're not really pushing yourself hard enough," Bopp said.

There is a lot happening in the Innovation Commons, a 10,000-square foot center of ingenuity and creativity that's open to every Brophy student. Now in its second year, the IC has become a gathering place for budding coders, designers, explorers, and entrepreneurs, all taking advantage of the state-of-the-art equipment available and sharing the knowledge they've gained as they learn by doing.

"The Innovation Commons has had a transformational impact on teaching and learning at Brophy," said Principal Bob Ryan. "It's mind boggling to see what freshmen have created in their Innovative Technologies course. In less than one semester, they become proficient in the basics of CAD (computer-aided design), circuitry and coding, and have used these skills to generate really impressive projects."

Thanks to the IC, certain student groups now feel more included in campus life than ever before. When senior Jack Venberg was first approached to join the robotics team his freshman year, he found himself with a group of engaged, excited students. It was great, except, as he says, the team and its work were "hidden away" in a remote corner of the school.

"We didn't feel like we were part of something bigger," Venberg explained. "But the environment of the school has changed. We're moving more towards an openness to tech and innovation, and we definitely feel more included."

Sophomore Brandon Ortega was part of the first Innovative Technologies class at Brophy and it was there that he discovered his passion-and talent-for computer programming and design. A former Loyola Academy student, Ortega's first experience with any computer came when he was issued his first iPad at school. By the second semester of his freshman year he was Bopp's seventh period teaching assistant. He is now working on perfecting a robotic hand design.

"Growing up I didn't have a computer like most people," Ortega said. "But then when I came down here, I just wanted to test out all these new things that are around me. The first thing I made was pretty awful. But then I started tinkering around with OnShape (a computer program), and I've done more and more complicated and complex stuff. Now I'm starting a CAD club where we'll work on projects that are just for fun and progress to making things to help the community."

Helping the community, making the world a better place-those are concepts at the very heart of Jesuit education. "The IC is really just a representation of what it means to have a Renaissance education in the 21st century," said Bopp. "Jesuits are committed to the idea that you can find God in all things and that all kinds of human endeavors can glorify God. Same goes here."

"This is about enabling students to discover and create a passion," said Kevin Elinski, Brophy's director of innovative technology and Bopp's replacement. "We provide them with the tools and skills to enable them to change the world. With the knowledge developed here they have the ability to create physical solutions to most of the problems they will encounter. They just need to commit to and develop that solution."

Senior Xander Gomez is thinking now about how what he's learned in the IC could be used to improve life in other countries. Already a budding entrepreneur-he recently opened a business offering CAD services-he's started researching the possibility of 3-D printing entire houses.

"You could print 100 houses in the time it would take to build one house by hand," Gomez explained. "So, in underdeveloped countries you can bring in concrete 3-D printers and make houses for people who would otherwise have to sleep out in the open.

"I think it's my duty, almost, that if I came up with this idea that I would have to make it happen, bring it into the world."

The IC is, at its very core, a completely student-centered space. Students are learning from each other, writing their own user manuals for equipment, helping each other make their ideas a reality, and taking ownership of the area and everything in it.

Junior Ryan Slawson brought his passion for creating set pieces for Brophy and (neighboring) Xavier College Preparatory's theater productions down to the IC and, in addition finding a new home away from home, he has become the go-to guy for anyone needing help using a CNC router (which he explains as "sort of like a 3-D printer but instead of adding materials it takes them away") and laser cutters.

"I found out that anyone-you don't have to be in an engineering or an innovative technologies class-can come down here and work on whatever he likes," he said. "So I started working on a sign for the first semester Brophy production of 'A Christmas Carol' using the CNC router.

"If someone needs help with something, I drop what I'm doing and show him how he can get it done on his own. It's fun teaching someone how to do something I love to do-so eventually he can learn to love it, as well."

Case in point: Ortega credits his proficiency with CAD in part to Gomez, who was the first to show him how to use it. "We all help each other out here," Ortega said. "If I don't know how to do something, how to work it, I just ask someone. And then I learn so I can show someone else."

"We're supposed to be Men for Others, right? Well, down here we really are," Slawson said.

These students have built quite a close-knit community, which is not surprising when you consider how much time they spend in the Commons. Gomez, a member of Brophy's championship swim and dive team, says matter-of-factly, "When I'm not in class or not swimming I'm down here. I'm always here at lunch. Actually, I wish the teachers would get here earlier every day so I could spend more time here."

A year in, the Innovation Commons has provided these young men with more than just an outlet for their creativity-it seems also to have taught them a few important life lessons, such as what it means to live in a community and how to be there for others. And then there's the importance of persistence, of not giving up."I know I don't have to get it right the first time," Gomez said. "Every single time I mess something up, I learn from it and do better next time."

"Like Mr. Bopp said," Ortega chimed in, "we get to make better mistakes tomorrow."

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