Sara PoolerSPOKANE, Wash. – Bogged down in a boring high school class 15 years ago, student Sarah Pooler perked up when asked to use pipe cleaners to demonstrate cell division.
“It was a light-bulb moment,” recalled Pooler. “I thought, ‘What if all science could be as interesting as this?’ ”
At Riverpoint Academy, exciting lessons go far beyond pipe cleaners, and Pooler is smack-dab in the middle of the action. She teaches biosciences at the new high school, where juniors are pondering how to stop rampaging leukemia cells and improve drug-resistant antibiotics. Pooler also is a doctoral candidate in the Washington State University College of Education, which has strong ties to the innovative academy.
Riverpoint Academy opened in September. It is operated by Mead School District, which describes it as a place where students take on real-world challenges.
“We use a method called ‘design thinking,’ which comes from the IDEO Co. and Stanford Design School,” said Pooler. “The first step is gaining empathy. The students interview someone they have regular contact with and look at how they can improve that person’s life – maybe grandma, who has Alzheimer’s.”

That approach got student Dylan Horan researching the potential for curing blindness with mini-cameras embedded in the eye.

“My whole family has eye issues, so I thought this would be interesting,” said Horan.
University buy-in and tie-in
While the arts, humanities and business are integral to the curriculum, Riverpoint is known as one of Washington’s newest STEM high schools – short for science, technology, engineering and mathematics. That’s why the Mead District located the academy nine miles away in the Innovate Washington building, across the street from WSU Spokane, with its wealth of health science programs and laboratories.

University faculty and students are mentoring and collaborating with Riverpoint Academy students, Pooler said. For example, WSU College of Pharmacy students are intrigued with engaging them in a research project.

For the WSU College of Education, the academy serves as a lab for improving high school teaching. The college will work with the academy to evaluate its instruction and design a math curriculum, said Clinical Associate Professor Joan Kingrey. The college and academy also are partners in Project Lead the Way (PTLW), which trains teachers to give hands-on biomedical science instruction.
“During the summer, we use academy space to train PTLW teachers,” said Kingrey. “During the school year, the academy uses the university’s PTLW lab for classroom space.”

Kingrey serves on the Riverpoint Academy board of advisers, which includes business people as well as educators from area schools and universities. They see the academy as a way to get more students into the pipeline toward higher education and, ultimately, jobs in the growing technology and health science fields.

The goal: career readiness
There are 75 juniors at Riverpoint Academy. Next year, when they are seniors, a second class of juniors will be enrolled. Getting those teenagers ready for careers is a prime directive of Pooler and her three fellow teachers.
The students create electronic portfolios. They visit local businesses, writing letters of introduction beforehand and thank-you letters afterward. They research college programs.
When they work on projects, they switch roles – serving, for example, as the coach who keeps the group on track or the one who evaluates the quality of work. On exhibition nights, they dress professionally and present their projects to the community.
Pooler cheers the students on, encouraging them to find solutions to problems and enter their ideas in competitions.
“Even more valuable than the prize money are the connections you can make. The people you meet can have a huge impact on your life,” Pooler said, explaining the value of the upcoming Bio Expo in Seattle. “You guys are doing amazing projects! The sky’s the limit.”
Planning and personalizing
When Pooler was a Mead High School student, her career goal was teaching. The pipe-cleaner lesson put her on a science path. She attended WSU in Pullman, earning a biology degree with a chemistry minor and a teaching certificate in 2002.
From there, she taught science in Nine Mile Falls and was a science education specialist for the NorthEast Washington Educational Service District. Along the way, she taught science teaching methods at Whitworth University and was a science curriculum consultant.
By 2011, Pooler was director of education and outreach at Spokane’s Mobius Science Center. That’s when she learned about plans to launch Riverpoint Academy. She jumped at the chance to work there.
“We spent a lot of hours last spring and summer as a staff, planning, planning, planning,” she said. “By the start of the school year, we had criteria and standards and project calendars for the students. When the students arrived, we could let go and have them personalize the projects.”
One project involved creating documentary films about innovations that changed history, such as the printing press or Internet or nuclear weapons. Students examined what need those innovations met, how they evolved and how they might continue to improve lives 50 years from now. The films included interviews with community members and integrated science, English, economics, history and business.
Just normal geniuses
In her own doctoral work at WSU, Pooler plans to research the best ways to apply business-world design thinking to teaching. Her Riverpoint Academy classroom looks like a laboratory.

There are no textbooks. Students use school-provided laptops and iPads. They sit or stand at high tables designed for small-group collaboration. They talk a lot.

Those teens chatting about green technology and negatively charged antibiotics were chosen for the academy because of their interest in the program, not because of grades. According to Mead officials, the student body reflects that of the district as a whole: 30 to 40 percent come from low income families and 10 percent have special needs. There’s the usual mix of “A” students and those who struggle with school work.

“They’re just normal-looking kids,” said Janet Frost, a WSU professor who will help the academy develop a math curriculum next year. “But then you talk to them, and they all sound like geniuses.”