STEM for Everyone at Brooks Crossing Lab

Brooks Crossing Innovation Lab and Opportunity Center is Building Community Around STEM Education

by Justice Menzel

At the Brooks Crossing Innovation Lab and Opportunity Center in Newport News, personal and career growth opportunities are always within reach.

Located near the city’s southern tip, the Brooks Crossing Innovation Lab (iLab) is a safe harbor for hands-on STEM education and workforce development programs across multiple age groups.

Opening its doors in early 2019, the iLab is a collaborative effort between Old Dominion University, the city of Newport News, and Newport News Shipbuilding. Funded by a federal grant to Newport News, the iLab, “serves to transform [the Southeast Community Neighborhood of Newport News] into a place of choice by improving and expanding services, expanding learning opportunities, creating pathways to jobs, and strengthening families.”

“We bring in K-12 students, and also community members, and provide them with experiential learning opportunities around STEM,” says Dr. Karen Sanzo, director of the iLab. “It’s a chance for students and the community to come in and get excited about career and college STEM opportunities.”

©Photos Courtesy of Brooks Crossing

©Photos Courtesy of Brooks Crossing

The best part? It’s completely free. All programs, classes, materials, and maker spaces are accessible and open to the community. As a STEM-based learning center, the iLab endeavors to teach visitors a skill, ranging from 3D printing to audio recording. Students in the Newport News Public School system can visit on field trips or after school, and the public is free to use the iLab’s facilities during visiting hours provided they complete a training course.

“I love seeing the kids that don’t need our help anymore,” Sanzo says. “They just come into the iLab, and know exactly what to do. We’ve watched these kids arrive not knowing how to do any of this STEM-related stuff and now we’ve got seven-year-olds that are programming robots and adding music.”

“We like to add an extra ‘M’ to STEM: Maritime,” Sanzo says. In partnership with Newport News Shipbuilding, the center provides students and adults with maritime career learning opportunities and career pathways. To meet future needs, the partnership is currently designing a maritime-focused laboratory school where 11th and 12th-grade high school students will come to learn about supply chain and environmental studies—two growing industries in the Coastal Virginia region.

As ODU educators support the Innovation Lab’s many STEM-based programs, the city of Newport News directs the facility’s Opportunity Center. There, students and visitors can explore career opportunities, receive assistance from staff in resume-building, and participate in shared initiatives with the iLab. One of these programs, Navigating Wealth, “takes its cohort through different processes to help them become financially stable and think about the world of work,” says Sanzo. After, the iLab Team invites the Opportunity Center’s students to come and engage with tools such as laser cutters, screen printing equipment, and computers. “[At the lab,] they can think about what might be interesting for them in a STEM-based career.”

According to the iLab’s 2023 Fall Executive Summary, 916 young learners and 334 adults engaged with the lab from September to December participating in a total of 72 events and programs. The Brooks Crossing Innovation Lab and Opportunity Center provides a platform from which a diverse community can explore rewarding and good paying STEM-based career paths, deploying technologies that can help solve real world problems.

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