MOORHEAD – Expect to wear a cape at Inspire Innovation Lab.

The nonprofit’s founder, Carrie Leopold, insists.
“It’s for empowerment and inspiration and getting that out-of-the-box thinking,” she says. “You can flip it up if you want to be more evil or flip it down if you want to be more superhero, like ‘I think I can conquer the world.’ ”

Inspire Innovation Lab, which opened June 3 in the Moorhead Center Mall, focuses on STEM development and education for students, teachers and the community.

STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics – fields that Leopold, of West Fargo, says many children could succeed in but don’t know they can. She’s especially passionate about engaging girls, children from low-income families, young immigrants and Native American children.

Only 16 percent of high school seniors in America are proficient in mathematics and interested in a STEM career, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

“I think these kids have skills, they have passion, they have knowledge and they just need to have it unleashed,” Leopold says. “People think science is hard, and content-wise it could be hard, but the process of it really isn’t. You can do it if you’re really passionate about it. I think that so many kids, women, girls and unrepresented kids don’t know that. I want to change that.”

Intersection of science, art

Through experiments like creating rockets from used pop bottles and disassembling cell phones, kids learn about science in a vibrant environment. They can draw on the chalkboard walls and make a mess.

The sky-blue space has a red robot painted on one wall, and yellow stability balls replace traditional seating. A free library and bean bag chairs greet visitors in the hallway, and the door’s always open for curious passersby.

It’s a welcoming, creative atmosphere, and Leopold says it’s intended to be because art and science intersect at the lab.

Whether children are creating a sculpture out of organic materials to learn about ecology and biology or extracting DNA and making a DNA vial into a necklace, they’re using science skills and creativity simultaneously.

“Science and art coming together is much more natural than it may first seem. In both you experiment and have to explore ideas. Kids often learn more easily by doing,” says artist Carrie Lee Wendt.

Wendt joined Inspire Innovation Lab as a volunteer art teacher and marketing director after meeting Leopold at a social entrepreneur gathering.

“We both want to leave a legacy to our children, hoping that they will be creative, innovative and passionate people who care about their journey and impact on their environment,” she says.

Leopold’s two youngest children are with her at the lab most days this summer, and like Wendt, they’re part of what motivated her to pursue change in education.

“I want something better for my own kids, but I also want something better for everybody else’s kids,” she says. “I want a creative outlet for the community for that change.”

‘Belief in change’

Leopold’s always known that she wanted to found a nonprofit or work for one. She’s the project lead for the Great Plains Girls Collaborative, involved with a girl’s startup club in West Fargo and the Girls Understanding and Exploring Stem Stuff Program sponsored by the North Dakota State College of Science.

Starting an organization was a natural transition.

“I couldn’t tell you when the idea started because I always thought that a non-profit might be a way to make a bigger difference,” she says.

A year ago, she started establishing the organization and gathered an “eclectic” board of local professionals that includes an attorney, activists, people in finance and educators.

“They’re all feminists and want change. I picked them because of a skillset they have and their belief in change,” Leopold says.

She also quit her full-time job as the STEM outreach coordinator at the North Dakota State College of Science in Fargo to eliminate any conflict of interest. Although she left on good terms and is still involved with projects at the school, Leopold says the change is challenging.

“I’m just now experiencing the no paycheck coming in. I knew that would be my goal, this is what I would be doing. I didn’t think it would happen this soon,” she says.

‘Big missing piece’

As part of Leopold’s education triad, she wants to involve the community in Inspire Innovation Lab. Community involvement is the “big missing piece” in educational change, she says.

“I know there are businesses that want to connect to education but don’t know how and also people in education who want to connect with businesses,” Leopold says. “This is a safe place where businesses can reach out and schools can reach out, and we can try to connect that.”

Inspire Innovation Lab is funded by private donors and one grant currently, and it’s totally volunteer-run. Leopold hopes to eventually take over the space next to the lab and open a “geeky” store that would sell science-related goods to benefit the organization.

Once the school year begins, the lab will be available for classes to visit and learn. Leopold plans to launch after-school programs as well and an art class once a week, science classes on Saturdays and adult and teen nights.

“The goal by the time I die is to really spark this change from going from the 50-minute class assembly-line approach of education to, some people called it STEM, but the idea is really in the process and can the kids go from looking at a problem in the community to working through the process and coming up with a solution,” she says. “It’s a very different look to education. I think ultimately that can level that playing field for underrepresented kids.”

More information at: INFORUM.