As a South Texas boy growing up in Laredo, Geoffrey Orsak said STEAM curriculum (short for science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) made it possible for him to live out his dreams.
Now, as the newly installed executive director of HPISD’s Moody Innovation Institute, he hopes to help other students achieve similar aspirations.
“Most jobs of the future will be STEAM-related. It’s really important that our kids get those opportunities,” Orsak said.
In August 2016, the Moody Foundation donated $5.8 million to the Highland Park Education Foundation to help start the new initiative. According to district officials, it was the largest grant of its kind ever given to a Texas school district.
Since September, an 18-person design team made up of existing staff members has been working to make the institute a reality. Those efforts are the initial steps of a five-year plan that will eventually affect every student in the district.
“I think this will be uniquely Highland Park,” Orsak said. “We have a high performing district, and this will take us even higher.”
The Moody Institute will serve as an umbrella for enhanced STEAM curriculum at all grade levels. For the next two years, select teachers will receive professional development. They will then become the advocates who train other teachers.
District officials also hope that the third year of the plan will usher in the Moody Advanced Professional Studies Center (MAPS), which will afford high school students internship-type opportunities to work with various STEAM experts in a professional setting. The site of the center has not been determined yet, though it will likely be off-campus.
Orsak comes to HPISD from the Texas Research Alliance, an initiative started by area chambers of commerce to get businesses and universities working more closely together. He sees a lot of synergies between that role and what he plans to do in Highland Park.
“There’s nothing better than a student actually talking to an adult about something real and working alongside them,” Orsak said. “You just can’t replicate that in the classroom.”
Orsak studied engineering at Rice University and later served as SMU’s dean of engineering and applied science for eight years. However, despite his engineering background, he’s an advocate for the recent addition of arts to the curriculum formerly known as STEM.
“Most people would say that arts are creative. What I would say about engineering is that it’s creative too,” he said. “We’re both about design. It’s a natural fit.”
According to Orsak, most students don’t know exactly what they want to be when they grow up. He considers bringing multiple disciplines together and merging them into an integrated curriculum as a key goal.
“Those who don’t [go into a STEAM career] will still get the problem-solving skills which will be necessary for life,” he said.
Orsak has spent the first month on the job getting up to speed and working with the design team, which he said has done a great job. Now he hopes to leave his own mark.
“I hope this will be my crowning joy.”