Four years ago, Owensboro Public Schools opened the Owensboro Innovation Academy -- a hands-on project-based high school.

On Wednesday, city schools opened Owensboro Innovation Middle School -- a similar program for students in grades six through eight.

That gives students who go that route seven years of project-based learning.

Across the district, the number of students attending classes on the first day was up 127 from last year -- from 4,623 to 4,750

Enrollment numbers won't be final for a few weeks, though.

Matthew Constant, the school system's chief academic officer, said 315 students of those students are enrolled at OIA this fall and 300 are enrolled at iMiddle (formerly Owensboro Middle School South).

"OIA teachers are so excited about this," he said of the middle school project. "These students will hit the ground faster when they get to OIA."

Mark Moore, the school's director, welcomed the students at an assembly program in the gym.

"We're going to push you in ways you've never been pushed," he told the students.

A lot of the work will be in teams, Moore said, because "very few jobs don't require you to work well with others."

He said, "I'm super excited. It's like being in a dream."

If students were both excited and nervous, Moore said, so was he.

A lot of fun things are planned, he told them -- building a model roller coaster, constructing a catapult, making care packages for the elderly.

"We're going to build your skills," Moore said. "We're unleashing the beast. We're going to affect people halfway around the world."

Educators from other school districts and even other states are expected to visit the school, he said.

Moore told students they would guide the visitors on tours.

Years from now, he said, the students would be remembered as the ones who started project-based middle school education in the community.

"We're revolutionizing middle school education," Moore said. "You will impact the entire state."

The students had to apply to be accepted in the program.

"I'm excited about working with everybody," Dylan McCollam, a seventh-grader, said after the pep rally-speech. "It's a new way of learning. I love hands-on learning."

Elizabeth Allen, another seventh grader, said, "I'm excited about learning real-life skills."

And Addie Travis, also a seventh grader, said she likes the idea of learning in a new way.

All three said they learn better with a hands-on approach rather than just looking at a book or a screen.

And all three said they would probably stick with the program through high school.

Keith Lawrence, 270-691-7301, klawrence@messenger-inquirer.com

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