WRA - Creating an Intelligent Community

Matt GerberMatt Gerber

Western Reserve Academy's open approach to innovation, technology, and the betterment of students has enhanced Hudson's standing as an intelligent community. Read below to learn about WRA's recent initiatives.

"With over 2.5 million cities globally, I am excited to live and contribute to one of the top 7 Intelligent Communities. The award bestowed upon Hudson illustrates what we all know: Hudson is a thoughtful and leading intelligent community not only in Ohio, but the world. The Wang Innovation Center congratulates The City of Hudson on this award."

-Matt Gerber, Director of the Wang Innovation Center at WRA.

21st Century Pioneers

Calls for deeper learning and the development of 21st century skills have intensified recently; however, the desire for students to develop transferable knowledge and skills is not new. To address these needs, Western Reserve Academy (WRA), the nearly 200-year old college preparatory school in the heart of Hudson, is dramatically revising its 50-year old curriculum.

Beginning in the 2017-2018 school year, WRA curriculum changes were implemented to emphasize understanding of the deeper structure of problems and the methods used to solve them through discovery and working in teams. Alternatives to standardized advanced placement (AP) courses were also made available to students. Faculty and students sought the freedom to do far more than simply “teach the test.” Instead, WRA, the top-ranked private school in Ohio by the education ranking website Niche, refocused on 21st century skills in distinctive and diverse courses that foster experiential learning.

The WRA curriculum is oriented around teaching students lifelong skills that complement technology, such as problem solving, teamwork, and communication. WRA was the first independent school in their region to move beyond advanced placement courses.

 “Our move to an independent curriculum facilitates deeper, experiential learning. As teachers, we can devote our valuable contact time with students to the most rewarding and enriching topics — instead of having to focus on test prep,” stated Diccon Ong, Head of Department Chairs and History Department Chair.

A bold, innovative move like this was not without concern. “We had to work with parents very closely. Initially, they were concerned,” said Head of School Christopher Burner. Courses are all built to inspire college-bound students to do meaningful work and discover their individual passion.  

In lieu of advanced placement courses, WRA now offers 23 college level courses with flexible plans. Students still are offered the opportunity to sit for AP tests on campus but are not restricted by a curriculum requiring them.

As part of the revised curriculum, in 2017-2018, WRA introduced required Digital Literacies Courses for Freshman.  

Learning to Code: While exploring the digital world, students learn how data is digitally encoded and transmitted. They deepen their understanding of the internet and the underlying structure of digital devices. Students consider the power of current technology and the possibilities for the future. Together, they discuss the societal impact and challenges of digital technologies.

Learning to Make: This course is a hands-on introduction to personal fabrication and innovation in The Wang Innovation Center. The course specifically looks at design thinking, computer-aided design, computer-controlled cutting, electronics production, 3D scanning and printing, electronics design, machining, molding and casting, input devices, output devices, composites, mechanical design, invention, and intellectual property.

In keeping with the philosophy of preparing students for success, in 2018-2019, sophomores are now required to take Sophomore Literacies.

Learning to Communicate: This course will focus on skills like public speaking, interviewing, class discussion, evidence-based debate, presenting for a variety of audiences, active listening, email etiquette, cover letter writing, resume writing, podcasting, and short film making.

Learning to Live Well: This course is a health and wellness course, and it teaches students about healthy decision making and care for the self and others.

WRA has also restructured its 6-day per week school schedule, reducing the number of classes each day from 6-7 to 4.  This move gave students more time between classes to absorb what they learned. “Saturday Academy” class offerings are diverse, career-practical and include such innovative options such as Forensic Science Technology, Cancer Research (in conjunction with the Cleveland Clinic), the Chemistry of Cooking, Build Your Own Bicycle, and more.

The new independent, student-centered curriculum brings greater flexibility and creativity to the classroom, encourages optimization of the Wang Innovation Center, and demonstrates WRA’s enduring mindset as educational pioneers. Students and faculty share more transformational educational experiences that are founded in the cultivation of a 21st century skill-set that includes collaboration, creativity, resilience, critical thinking, problem solving, initiative, and entrepreneurship.

Cultivating a Knowledge Workforce

Wang Innovation CenterMatt Gerber teaching students in the Wang Innovation Center

Western Reserve Academy (WRA) created the Wang Innovation Center to help students develop design thinking and innovation skills for the 21st century with a curriculum that incorporates design problems requiring critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, communication, and entrepreneurship. The Center is a 6,000-square-foot collaborative learning space and is designed as three main spaces with specific functions - to imagine and plan, to prototype, and to build. This Innovative Center was made possible by generous donations, including a donation from the Hudson-based Burton D. Morgan Foundation whose mission is to champion the entrepreneurial spirit.

In conjunction with the Wang Innovation Center, WRA has adopted the philosophy that non-cognitive skills such as grit, collaboration, and self-advocacy are also important, and this philosophy is captured in their curriculum.

The Learning to Code component of these courses encourages students to explore the digital world while learning how data is digitally encoded and transmitted to better understand digital devices and their impact on society. Students learn basic programming skills and concepts that will translate to any programming language. They are encouraged to consider possibilities for the future and create apps that solve today’s problems. Students complete projects based on artificial intelligence, internet of things, robotics, and coding.  In addition, students focus programming knowledge on virtual and augmented reality.

The Learning to Make component introduces students to the Wang Innovation Center by having them explore design, computer-controlled cutting, electronics production, 3-D scanning and printing, machining, molding, and casting. Students explore their own interests to develop projects that promote critical thinking, entrepreneurship, communication, and collaboration.

The Wang Innovation Center, after two years of operation, is transforming learning at WRA. Of the 52 WRA faculty members, 42 have utilized the Center facilities as a tool and resource as they challenge students to solve real-world problems beyond traditional classroom ways. For example, students in the Advanced Digital Fabrication and Engineering class were challenged to solve the problem associated with food production in urban areas. Student prototypes included vertical plant growing walls, aquaponics, and a food computer capable of growing food anywhere in the world. These prototypes solve real-world issues such as water conservation, limited fertile soil, and expanding populations.

Wang Innovation Center

Last year saw a continued increase in demand for use of the Wang Innovation Center. “There is a line at the door at opening and a full house until closing each day,” said Matt Gerber, Director of the Wang Innovation Center. “This space has clearly sparked the entrepreneurial spirit in area students and, in a number of cases, has reformatted their future.”

The National Association of Independent Schools has chosen WRA as a model for the future.


Another direct result of the focus on design thinking and entrepreneurship is the creation of a student-run business that operates out of the Wang Innovation Center. The student-run business works with area businesses to perform services. In August 2018, students in Advanced Digital Engineering and Fabrication began working with two Hudson businesses to provide a merchandising line. In August 2018, students in the Wang Innovation Center produced over 200 products for more than 45 entities.Students at WRA are partnering more and more with local businesses to design, engineer and create products. When the Center first launched, students designed and constructed banners and t-shirts for Hudson community organizations and businesses. As enthusiasm about the Wang Innovation Center spread throughout northeast Ohio, requests for more complex designs and manufacturing increased from distant companies. A Cleveland-based fashion business contacted WRA to design and laser engrave spoons for a Kanye West licensed shoe launch. Students also designed and produced custom golf balls for Kichler Lighting, a lighting manufacturer located in Cleveland. With tech-savvy students designing high-tech things like artificial limbs, circuit boards, and drones, partnerships with various business and civic groups are expanding and students can gain authentic experience.

Wang Innovation Center

A 2018-2019 strategic goal is the development of the Hudson Business Internship Program that will partner students with Northeast Ohio and Hudson businesses. The City of Hudson’s Chief Economic Officer will leverage business contacts to provide opportunities for students, in both public and private schools, to help solve real business problems, gain valuable experience, and champion the entrepreneurial experience. This is a step towards a more sustainable Wang Innovation Center and partnership between businesses, academia, and the City to enable connections that will further design thinking and entrepreneurship.

WRA has also reached out to Hudson residents age 21 and over with the goal of making the Center a city-wide resource. Through financial underwriting from the Burton D. Morgan Foundation, WRA offers classes through Hudson Community Education and Recreation. More than 100 Hudson residents signed up for the 16 spots. The 12-week course introduced community members to personal fabrication and innovation in the Wang Innovation Center.

Based on the popularity of the introductory classes, WRA will continue to focus on community outreach by offering classes, workshops, and focused learning opportunities to members outside of the WRA community in Hudson. The program intends to develop year-long professional development opportunities for Hudson residents to learn the techniques of the Wang Innovation Center. This opportunity for lifelong learning will build on the knowledge gained from the Introduction to Personal Fabrication course offered this year and will allow residents to participate in more in-depth learning opportunities.

The Wang Innovation Center has impacted the teaching and learning process and has drawn in the community. For this, WRA is recognized nationally and internationally as a center of distinction and for having developed a culture of innovation.

Creating Environmental Stewards Through Education

WRA Environmental Stewards

Western Reserve Academy (WRA), a co-educational private boarding school with more than 400 students, is ranked #1 for college prep private high schools in Ohio and in the top 10% in the country. As part of its culture, WRA has made a commitment to the concept of sustainability in all dimensions of school life.

According to WRA, 2013 survey results of independent schools throughout the United States indicate a growing commitment to sustainability, specifically energy conservation, waste reduction and recycling, green buildings, school gardens, healthy food, sustainability in strategic planning, outdoor recreation, and integration of sustainability content and skills in the curriculum. The adoption of this concept has enabled WRA to model environmental responsibility and yield financial returns, raise ecological awareness among all constituencies, and demonstrate leadership among its peers.

WRA’s Sustainability Plan states: “In the face of extraordinary global challenges, from social and economic, to environmental and political, we need inspirational visions for a just and sustainable future. But we also need the intellectual know-how to develop effective solutions. This is why sustainability in education is so important."

To aid its sustainability efforts, WRA appointed a Sustainability Coordinator who reports to a Sustainability Committee. WRA provides professional development opportunities for faculty to learn about sustainability and global concepts and skills, or 21st Century Competencies, and is training teachers to integrate these concepts and skills into their disciplines.

WRA’s commitment to sustainability led to the integration of geothermal heating and cooling during the renovations of The President’s House - the most finely appointed and decorated building on the school’s campus that is included on the National Register of Historic Places. The success of this project was the catalyst for the geothermal plans for a second building on the campus - Seymour Hall. Over the summer of 2017, 11 borehole wells were drilled into the earth on the WRA campus, now hidden by grass, to implement a heating and cooling system that is aesthetically pleasing, economically smart, and environmentally friendly.

WRA also created a Sustainable Food Policy. The Policy aims to raise awareness about the benefits of healthy and sustainable food. In addition, the WRA community is encouraged to reduce food waste. A food composting program was developed so that all food waste is composted on campus and/or goes to local farms.

Results from other efforts include:

  • Using the WRA grounds to produce honey and syrup.
  • Providing sustainable mugs to students upon arrival in order to reduce cup waste, as well as making water fueling stations accessible around campus.
  • Involvement with Student Climate & Conservation Congress (Sc3) through membership with Green Schools Alliance, helping to foster school sustainability.
  • Weekend programs and trips to the Cuyahoga Valley National Park to learn about the environment and the benefits of the local watershed. Sourcing "farm-to-table" dining options through WRA Dining Services, not only giving the students and faculty healthy options, but also benefiting local vendors and farmers.
  • Created the student organization Earth Initiative which leads the recycling efforts while pursuing new opportunities to save energy, reduce waste, and engage the school community in their efforts.