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R2i2 breaks from tradition to prepare students for jobs, future education

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Trelvis Miller added a portion of ground meat into a pot of chopped onions and tomato sauce stirred by Trinitee Gonzalez as the students collaborated in producing a dish of baked ziti.

“I do love cooking,” said Miller, a senior at Westwood High School.

Miller and Gonzalez, a junior at Spring Valley High School, are learning the basics of operating a food truck with hopes of pursuing a business career.

Both are students at the Richland Two Institute of Innovation – commonly referred to as R2i2 – housed in a new $41 million, 200,000-square-foot building at the Village at Sandhills in Northeast Columbia.

About 100 high school students from Richland Two’s five high schools are taking part in a learning experience quite different from the traditional classroom. The students, who have completed their core classes and are on track to graduate at their respective high schools, spend either mornings or afternoons five days a week at the institute.

The institute, which partners with regional businesses and colleges and universities, offers classes designed to support students as they develop specialized and practical skills needed to fill jobs in the workforce, said Kevin Albrese, the director.

The institute also provides a central location within the school district for a collaborative learning, Albrese said. “It’s really a little family environment,” he said. “The kids have gotten to know other kids from across the district and learned to work together.”

At the institute, students are immersed in a professional culture right down to the chef coats Miller and Gonzalez wear in a class called Mobile and Non-Traditional Food and Service.

Additionally, students are called on to solve real-world problems with local business owners serving as mentors. The goal, Albrese said, is to have students prepared to enter the workforce after graduating or pursue further training or college.

The food service class offers students principles of entrepreneurship through the mobile food business, said teacher Michael Ann Fitch. Students are called on to execute a business plan and figure out how to charge enough for their product to turn a profit.

In the food service class, students also learn how supply chain and global logistics management applies to the food truck business.

While he plans to pursue a career in business management, Miller said he and other students have discovered personal strengths and weaknesses in running a business. “My strength is that I’m a salesperson,” he said. “I want to be out front talking to customers and selling product.”

Partnerships that the institute has forged with private industry include the installation of CATIA software on 25 desktop computers used in teacher Nicolas Jones’ Computer Aided Design & Manufacturing class.

CATIA, which costs $80,000 per desktop, is a high-grade professional design software used by companies such as Boeing, Volvo, and BMW – all of which have operations in South Carolina, Jones said. The donation makes the institute the only high school program in the United States that offers students an opportunity to learn CATIA, Jones added.

In Jones’ class, students learn the steps in modeling, designing and manufacturing prosthetics. Students come up with designs and then use a 3D printer to make prototypes.

One project students are working on is designing a pad Albrese can wear to better protect a Pacemaker implanted in his upper left chest.

The intent, Jones said, is to have students work on real-world problems and develop devices that can improve people’s quality of life.

“We’re training them with the hopes that they take that next leap” to using the software professionally, Jones said. 

Another example of real-world problem solving students are undertaking is the creation of a cellphone phone app that would allow the user to order and pay for meals delivered by Scott Benny’s, a Columbia-based fast-food restaurant on wheels.

The business owner, Quinton Scott, mentors students in the institute’s food service class and now is working with Thomas McLean, a junior at Spring Valley High School, to develop an app.

The idea, said Scott, is for a customer to be able to use the app to locate his food truck. If the truck is within 5 miles of the customer’s location, a meal can be ordered and delivered, Scott said. 

To make the app, McLean is learning to write computer code in the Apple Application Development class taught by Kelli Sumter, who was McLean’s computer science teacher at Spring Valley.

Sumter said students learn the Swift program language and Application Programming Interface to write apps for use on iPhones and iPad. The apps are submitted to Apple for vetting, she said.

Groundwork for the coding class was laid last year by 12 students representing all five high schools participated in an iOS programming course offered in partnership with Midlands Technical College. Through the course, students had an opportunity to receive an Apple Developer certification.

In Kirstin Bullington’s Next Energy and Fuel Cell Engineering class, students are working this semester on using solar panel technology.

Through the Teachers for Global Classrooms, students are designing and developing a solar-powered charging unit and then sending instructions to their counterparts in Senegal so they can make their own unit.

“They get feedback, learn what’s needed, what would be useful, and what would not,” Bullington said.

The project, she said, gives her students an opportunity to learn firsthand how their work can be transformative for someone living in a less-developed country.

“There, when the sun sets at 6 p.m. how do students study? They have to have light,” said Bullington, a former Peace Corps volunteer.

Other course offerings at the R2i2 include:

 Supply Chain and Global Logistics Management, which covers topics like product/service supply chains, security, sustainability, and supply chain vulnerability. Students learn quantitative techniques that can be applied to logistics such as simulation and modeling.

 Managerial Accounting and Finance, which covers use of internal and external data to enhance decision-making skills. Students study financial risk and return, capital budgeting, valuation, and other key topics in financial management.

Classes are small to allow students to pursue more individualized study as well as receive closer attention from teachers, Albrese said. Students are encouraged to personalize their course of study and pursue their own ideas for a project.

“I think it’s great,” McLean said of studying at the institute. “It’s flexible, we learn, and we get to go off and implement our own ideas.”

Reach Chuck Crumbo at 803-726-7542.

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