Tacoma’s newest high school focuses on industrial design, art, and engineering



A motorcycle parked in an industrial design lab at the new IDEA High School in Tacoma provides students with an example of real-world design. The school’s acronym stands for Industrial Design, Engineering and Art.


Tacoma’s third small themed high school, called IDEA, will open in September.

IDEA stands for industrial design, engineering and art. It is an educational sibling of SOTA, the Tacoma School of the Arts, and SAMI, the Science and Mathematics Institute, and was started by some of the same educators who helped build those schools.

IDEA director Zach Varnell is a veteran SOTA faculty member. He taught audio recording and songwriting there for 10 years before leaving to work as a curriculum manager for an online education company three years ago.

But Jon Ketler, founder of SOTA, SAMI and IDEA, persuaded Varnell to return to Tacoma and start IDEA.

IDEA, housed in the old school building on Park Avenue in South Tacoma, will open the year with about 125 freshmen. Other grade levels will be added in subsequent years, with an eventual goal of 500 to 550 students.

Just like at SOTA and SAMI, students from all over the city apply and are chosen by lottery to participate in IDEA. Students at each of Tacoma’s colleges have a chance of getting a proportion of the seats, based on their college’s eighth-grade enrollment size.

Much like SOTA and SAMI, students show up for an overnight camp that serves as a community-building exercise before the first day of school. Most IDEA students also attended a “First Look” day over the summer, designed to help them make a successful transition to secondary school.

“Our curriculum is designed around project-based education,” Varnell said.

Teachers are grouped into teams of four, each with expertise in one of four areas: humanities, mathematics, science or arts.

IDEA invited business professionals – architects, builders, mechanical or computer engineers, graphic designers, artists and others from the community – to be part of the school. In exchange for teaching their trade to IDEA students, they can earn a workspace in the building.

This story was originally published August 23, 2016 2:45 p.m.

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