The website for Innovators Academy proudly states, “Classes are offered in robotics, coding, and engineering for preschool through middle school students.” Wait, what? Robotics, coding and engineering…for preschoolers?
“Yes,” laughs Annie Barrows, the intellectual dynamo whose brainchild is Innovators Academy, where preschoolers are truly learning the fundamental building blocks of robotics, coding and engineering.
Innovators Academy is a makerspace for kids that Barrows launched in The District at Prairie Trail in Ankeny in October 2018. It is a place where young people can go to explore their own interests; learn to use technologies and materials, both physical and virtual; and develop creative projects through design thinking and problem solving.
“We need to help kids become innovators, by helping them find their passion and see the purpose of the learning,” Annie says. “We also help kids become creative problem solvers through making, creating, building and designing.”
“We don’t know of another makerspace for kids like this anywhere in central Iowa, where there is a teacher to help guide students in using the equipment and doing the programming,” says Ashley Johnson, Marketing Director of DRA Properties, which operates The District at Prairie Trail. “We know it’s going to be a huge hit in the area.”
The Brains Behind the Creation, the Journey, and the Destination
A West Des Moines native and graduate of Iowa State University with a master’s degree in educational technology, Annie was a technology and computer science teacher in Kansas City before moving to New York, where she was a middle school computer science teacher at a private school. In 2016, she was selected by a top school in New York to help open an affiliate school in Dubai, and it was there that she first developed a makerspace.
“I learned a lot about myself in Dubai,” she recalls. “Ultimately it made me realize I wanted to come home. I was tired of making these really successful programs in these schools and not being the owner of it. I trusted my gut and was confident I could do this.”
While many might find launching an entirely new business daunting, Annie says the process has been easier than she expected, even though she was still in Dubai as she began the process in early 2018 and didn’t return to the U.S. until July, just a few months before the grand opening of Innovators Academy. For one thing, she was building the business on a model she already knew inside and out, that she loved and believed in.
“But I didn’t know anything about the business side of things, like getting a loan and writing the business plan. I thought that would be harder,” Annie says. “I just happened to come in contact with people that helped me along the way.”
As for picking a location for Innovators Academy, her mom and sister helped scout locations and Annie toured them remotely via Skype. She ultimately selected The District at Prairie Trail in Ankeny because of its community feel. “I knew the area had a lot to offer already, and is going to be amazing when it’s done,” she says. “The new Ankeny library and the Town Square will be right across the street and I will absolutely use those.”
Teaching STEAM so Students Can Become Innovators
Despite the clear need to have an entrepreneurial spirit to take on launching a new business, Annie says she is first and foremost a teacher. “I 100 percent consider myself a teacher,” says Annie, whose mother and sister both own their own businesses so have served as solid inspiration.
Innovators Academy offers a robust curriculum, from pre-school classes of engaging activities to introduce topics in coding and robotics, to classes for middle schoolers designed to develop and maintain their interest in STEAM (science, technology, engineering and math, plus art and design). Special classes also include woodworking, parent sessions, and design challenges. There is also “work time”- a period purposefully left open so students and families can come and create as they wish. Free speaking events, special workshops during holiday breaks, hackathons and birthday parties are also offered. All are designed to help students become innovators, according to Annie.
“To me, innovation is quite simply defined as creative problem solving,” she says. “Helping students become innovators has been my passion and driving force. Innovation is a skill that can, and absolutely needs to be, taught to students.
“We need to start by letting students play. Expose students to different materials, tools and technologies, and just let them play. Let students find what they like to do, and what they are passionate about.” Annie says.
Coding is a central focus, says Annie. “”It’s not if our kids should learn to code, but when they should start learning to code,” she notes. “I’ve come to realize that instilling good habits, thinking, and behaviors around using technology is the best way to set kids up to be successful coders in their later years. We need to teach kids to be brave enough to be problem finders, to ask questions and have the confidence in themselves to be able to use technology to create and answer their own questions. If something doesn’t work, students should try and fix it themselves.” Great life skills, to be sure.
Coding is such a priority to Annie that she launched a “Girls Who Code” club when in New York. “One of my passions is getting girls to stay interested in tech,” she says. Throughout her career she has frequently found herself the only woman in tech where she has worked. “Giving girls the opportunity to see women in tech they can relate to is so important,” Annie says. “I want girls to see that they can do it.”
“I have a love for helping all kids become innovators,” she says. “Some kids may have trouble in their regular classrooms sitting still, or paying attention or socializing, but when they come into my room and work with me, I see a totally different kid. They are working with their peers; they are totally engaged in what they are doing. Creating the opportunity for kids to work and learn in a new way and see them get super involved and excited to share and want to help and work with others is amazing. If you work with kids in a different way they can succeed and it can change how they see themselves.”
If Annie Barrows can have a hand in helping enough of the next generation, we are indeed, in good hands.