Energy Institute Reimagines School

Nearly ten years ago, Lori Lambropoulos was tasked with creating a different kind of learning experience for students – the kind that engaged students in real-world problems and inspired them to find solutions. In August 2013, Energy Institute High School (Energy IHS) opened its doors to its first ninth grade class. Today, the school serves more than 720 students in grades 9-12.

“My pet peeve was sitting down with kids and asking what they wanted to do with their future and them looking at me with blank stares,” Lambropuoulos said. “They were juniors and had been professional students for ten years, and they’d say the best part of their day was lunch.”

Energy IHS is a project-based learning campus. This means that students learn by doing, by investigating, and by problem solving.

“I was given the opportunity to do things differently,” Lambropuoulos said. “We asked people what they wanted to see in the workforce, and we heard it wasn’t all about math and science skills. Employers would get these students that didn’t know how to collaborate, how to initiate an idea, how to work in teams, so we owned that. If we really wanted to help kids, we couldn’t build a traditional school.”

The Energy IHS leadership had a vision but needed a foundation for the curricular program.

“I was looking online for curriculum that provided this, and it was such a passionate undertaking to break free from the traditional boundaries of school,” she said.

Then Lambropuoulos found PLTW. “PLTW became a central part of our school because it got kids excited,” she said. “When we started, we didn’t know we were going to use PLTW, so when we were looking for a program, it was this beautiful thing that was handed to us.”

PLTW also offered a key part of the vision for the school – empowering teachers to lead a different kind of classroom.

“The real magic of this school is project-based learning,” she said. “It gave teachers a different way of delivering content. Instead of teaching subjects in isolation, they are all merged together. I had to ask my teachers to be comfortable with this and learning alongside their students. Teachers are also learning how to work on teams in a dynamic environment.”

Lambropuoulos said the most difficult part was breaking through what everyone said school should look like, but the school continues to see success, which she attributes to the strong network of partnerships with industry and higher education. For example, Chevron, a PLTW Transformative Partner, has been a committed partner with the Houston community for years and with PLTW for over a decade.

“PLTW is one of our most beneficial partners across the country,” said Mary Murrin, Lead Corporate Affairs Advisor at Chevron North America Exploration and Production. “It continues the alignment of where the jobs are and where the students are. It’s not just feeling good about getting kids to graduation, but what happens after that.”

Energy IHS recently hosted administrators and educators from other districts along with business and community leaders for a showcase to see students in action. PLTW President and CEO Dr. Vince Bertram spoke to the group about the importance of breaking down barriers for student learning.

“What is happening here is very special, and PLTW is proud to partner with Energy IHS,” said PLTW President and CEO Dr. Vince Bertram. “At PLTW, our mission is to empower students to thrive in this evolving world. It sounds grandiose, but we believe we are empowering students with the tools they need to do what they want. Thank you to partners like Chevron who are committed to this work, because this can’t be just for some students. All students should have access to this.”

During the showcase, students shared their plans for their future and how their experience at the school was preparing them to pursue their chosen career path. Faith, a junior at Energy IHS, said that she was always interested in art and chose to attend Energy IHS to learn how to make things on her pathway to animation. She also shared that her daily commute to school usually tops two hours, but when asked what that’s like, her answer was clear.

“It’s absolutely worth it.”

Energy IHS is in Houston Independent School District, which is the largest school district in Texas and the seventh largest in the United States, serving approximately 209,000 students at 280 campuses. To stay up to date on all of Vince's travels and the latest in education and workforce development news, please follow @vincebertram on Twitter.