Starting this fall, Northern Virginia’s 4th-7th graders will have another educational option, Ideaventions Academy, courtesy of the husband-and-wife team of Ryan (right) and Juliana Heitz (below), both TJ ’93. Citing TJ as a major influence on their school’s curriculum and philosophy, the Heitzes plan to add an 8th-grade class next fall and hope ultimately to include both lower grades and a high school. The new school will occupy a reconfigured building located five miles from the Dulles Toll Road in Reston.
Ideaventions Academy is an outgrowth of Ideaventions, the couple’s five-year-old STEM education organization that features an Oakton storefront where the group holds classes and camps (see May 2012 issue). The pair has five years of experience putting their business and technology backgrounds to work creating and running Ideaventions. “Those who know us will tell you that a school is very much a natural progression for us as we look to make a deeper impact and hopefully serve as a model for innovation in STEM and gifted education. Parents, students, and many of the top schools in the area already come to us to provide expert instruction in science, engineering, and computer science. We have a relentless focus on improving STEM education,” Ryan Heitz said.
Just as the couple was inspired to start Ideaventions when they couldn’t find challenging, educational, hands-on STEM activities for their older child, then 5, they decided they needed to start a middle school as their son approached middle-school age without a more suitable educational option. They believe that gifted children, especially those interested in STEM areas, have special needs that are not being met, and that when looked at in light of the country’s demand for highly skilled workers, the gap constitutes “an immediate and urgent crisis affecting our nation.”
Acknowledging that the DC area has strong public school systems and many excellent private schools, the Heitzes saw three main areas in need of improvement: curriculum, teacher qualifications in STEM fields, and class size. They set out to create the ideal middle school for gifted learners, one that would provide self-paced math with meaningful applications, high school science subjects with research labs, and varied computer science offerings, in a small, nurturing environment that gives students room to explore. They’re recruiting teachers through their professional and personal networks that include involvement in professional organizations and partnerships in industry and academia. Classes are capped at ten students.
Students will design their schedule with the help of an adviser, choosing from required core classes, including humanities and arts, and diverse electives. The STEM curriculum is both broad and exceptionally deep for a middle school.
The math sequence (through Pre-Calculus with Trigonometry) combines applied mathematics labs with self-paced, guided instruction through Stanford University’s Educational Program for Gifted Youth online math courses. Applied math labs use science and engineering challenges, as well as topics such as cryptography, 3D modeling, game theory, and spatial analysis. Engineering (also required every year) teaches the ability to create physical objects and see how they come together by applying the engineering design process to a variety of individual and group long-term challenges.
- 4th Grade: keyboarding, Scratch, and robotics
- 5th Grade: Scratch, robotics, and introduction to Python
- 6th Grade: Python, advanced robotics (land), and web development
- 7th Grade: Python with Raspberry Pi and advanced robotics (underwater)
- 8th Grade: advanced Python, wearable tech, and mobile app development
- Electives: iOS App Development, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles Lab, Android Mobile App Development, Video Game Development, Minecraft Mods with Java
Science includes classical study and modern findings taught through investigations, experimentation, independent research and problem-based learning. Language arts is a component, as students communicate their work in writing and through oral presentations:
- 4th & 5th: Earth and Space Science, two years
- 6th or 7th: Molecular Chemistry
- 7th or 8th: Cellular Biology, Molecular Biology and Biodiversity
- 8th: Algebra-Based Physics
- Elective: Environmental Science
For the Heitzes, TJ serves as more than a curriculum model. In addition to making available an advanced slate of STEM offerings to younger students who demonstrate academic readiness, they aim to create a TJ-like atmosphere. As Ryan Heitz explains it, the school’s mission is a personal one: “I feel grateful for the environment at TJ. Those pre-TJ years were a struggle. I think the most valuable thing TJ gives its students is confidence — the confidence to do anything you set your mind to. The environment at TJ, and what it will be at Ideaventions Academy, is an accepting, challenging, and creative community where children can thrive with peers that share similar interests.”