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Robotics, machining and woodworking workshops, and artificial intelligence (AI) and augmented reality (AR) labs will be part of Branksome Hall’s new Innovation Centre and Studio Theatre (iCAST).Supplied

Branksome Hall has long been a pioneer in bringing innovation to education. Based in Toronto, it is an independent International Baccalaureate (IB) World School for girls, with more than 900 students from Junior Kindergarten (JK) to Grade 12.

The school is recognized for its academic excellence and leading-edge educational approaches to prepare girls for success in a digital, entrepreneurial economy. Its curriculum and programming prioritize skills development in science, technology, engineering, the arts and math (STEAM), as well as in entrepreneurship.

Branksome Hall is taking a significant step forward to strengthen students’ STEAM skills and nurture the “innovator’s mindset.” The transformation will be embodied in its new Innovation Centre and Studio Theatre (iCAST), a 32,000-square-foot facility set to open in 2025.

“iCAST is a game-changer,” says Karen Jurjevich, principal, Branksome Hall. “It allows us to scale up and expand our innovation programming in unprecedented ways. Although some Canadian universities house this kind of facility, iCAST will be first-of-its-kind space for any JK-Grade 12 institution in Canada.”

The focus of iCAST is digital skill-building, design and fabrication. With reconfigurable spaces and tools, the space will feature machine, wood and robotics workshops, as well as artificial intelligence (AI) and augmented reality (AR) labs. It will include a pitch space where students and industry experts can share ideas, and students in the Noodle business-accelerator program can pitch their business plans.

“It will be a place where technology and the arts will collide. An example of the arts-technology collision is our multimedia studio theatre, which is adaptable to traditional or experimental performance,” says Ms. Jurjevich.

“The girls can learn the technology of production as well as explore their creativity in acting, dance, music and film. Overall, iCAST will help students learn to take risks, solve problems and become more adaptable, which will serve them well in any career they choose.”

Nurturing young innovators

The new centre builds on Branksome Hall’s existing spaces and programs devoted to STEAM, entrepreneurship and creative expression. And this approach is used at the earliest stages, starting in Junior Kindergarten.

Branksome Hall educators recognize that early engagement in STEAM programming is a key driver in helping young girls explore their interest in these fields and consider them viable options for their future.

The Junior School for Junior Kindergarten to Grade 6 houses an iHub – a space dedicated to innovative thinking where students can create and solve problems and explore various media to express themselves.

“It includes a green screen for film and recording, along with a 3D printer, laser cutter, robotics, drones and other innovative technology,” says Emily MacLean, head of the Junior School. “It’s really about what we are doing with the tools that matters, connecting them to authentic learning experiences. One example is the Grade 6 students are currently participating in a unit about flight and are using drones to learn about the principles of flight, using mathematics and coding as they apply their knowledge and skills.”

While the iHub is one environment that fosters innovative thinking, innovation and technology are integrated into every classroom and subject across the Junior School.

“Our curriculum and programs are designed to nurture the creativity and curiosity that are innate in our younger students. They are eager to be risk-takers and to try new things,” says Ms. MacLean. “The possibilities will be endless for our young innovators when they start to explore through iCAST.”

The facility will be the new home of Noodle Junior, the Junior School version of the Noodle business-accelerator program. Initially for students from Grades 7 to 12, Noodle was expanded to Grades 5 and 6 in 2022, and this year to Grade 4.

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Kindness with Care presented their business venture, a soap company with charitable ties to SickKids, at the Noodle Junior Trade Show, June 5, 2023. Branksome Hall Grade 5 students (l-r): Amelie Schwan, Lucy Feldberg, Nayun Moon and Sophia Chen.CALEY TAYLOR

With the support of mentors, the students move through all the stages of creating a business.

“We begin by asking them to identify a real-world problem they want to solve, and then guide them to develop their product or service and create a company around their solution,” Ms. MacLean says. The program culminates with a trade show, where the students showcase their businesses to parents, staff and other students.

“The students love the idea of being business owners and truly think of themselves as founders of a company and entrepreneurs,” she says. “Parents say they’re amazed to see their children confidently talking about concepts like business plans, marketing and profit.”

In the first year of Noodle Junior, student ventures included an internet-safety program, a grocery-waste redistribution business and a soap company creating social impact.

Expanding learning opportunities to the broader community

Branksome Hall’s iCAST will be deeply integrated with the broader community. Not only will outside experts and industry leaders come into iCAST to enrich student learning, but the facility will allow the school to expand its existing community outreach including to other schools and marginalized communities.

Branksome Hall has created an Innovation Council, whose members lead their fields in innovation, technology and business, and who will help the school expand strategic partnerships and community connections through iCAST.

One of the council members is Shelby Austin, and her connections to Branksome Hall run deep. She attended the school from JK to Grade 12, and now, her daughter is a Grade 5 student.

The school set Ms. Austin on a path where today she is a co-founder and the CEO of a technology company called Arteria AI, which “turns documents into data to enrich and enable critical banking processes such as trading and lending,” she explains.

“I’m very much a product of Branksome Hall and someone who would have significantly benefited from a facility like iCAST,” she says. “I love the idea of awakening the innovator at a young age.”

Ms. Austin says she’s excited that her daughter’s passion for technology and innovation will be further sparked with the addition of iCAST.

“Being on the council allows me to be engaged in my daughter’s education and to add value through my role in the tech industry. I’m energized by the opportunity to expand partnerships and help engage people across the region in STEAM literacy and entrepreneurship,” says Ms. Austin.

“In today’s technological world, practical relevant skills are critical, and this leading-edge facility will bring development of these skills to a new level. But it’s about more than a building. It’s about how we educate in this country. I’m particularly excited that iCAST is not just for the Branksome girls; it will become a way of engaging with communities across the region and beyond to advance the education agenda more broadly.”

Advertising feature produced by Randall Anthony Communications. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved.

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