Cora Burkey and Hunter Strain, 8th graders at Burley Middle School work on their projects during class.

Students in Charlottesville, Albemarle County and Fluvanna County public schools soon will benefit from a significant federal grant.

The consortium of the three school divisions announced Friday that it is the recipient of a $3 million Investing in Innovation grant from the U.S. Department of Education. The awards are given to organizations with records of improving student achievement and growth.

Rosa Atkins, superintendent of Charlottesville City Schools, said that K-12 education is the key to Virginia’s future.

“This [Investing in Innovation] grant is a good example of how area school divisions work together and partner with the University of Virginia to invest in our students,” Atkins said. “Together, we are creating a talent pool that anticipates the future needs and opportunities in Virginia.”

“This is tremendously welcome news,” said Pam Moran, Albemarle County Public Schools superintendent. “These funds will support classroom activities that develop the design, research and production skills of our students, competencies that prepare them for lifelong success.”

Charlottesville and Albemarle both participate in the Laboratory Schools for Advanced Manufacturing — a middle school program in which students learn engineering concepts in their science and career and technical education courses by designing and manufacturing items that fill needs or solve problems.

The instructional approach calls for project-based learning, which requires students to apply course concepts to a specific project and helps develop critical and analytical thinking skills, as well as teamwork and communication skills among students.

Albemarle’s Sutherland Middle School and Charlottesville’s Buford Middle School have been designated as lab schools.

Partnering with the school divisions for this grant are UVa’s Center for Technology and Teacher Education, which is part of the Curry School for Education, and the Smithsonian Institution.

Gabrielle Schoppa, a teacher at Burley Middle School, said the classes are popular among students, who often bring ideas and learning from their other classes into her room.

“They build these things and it makes their ideas real,” Schoppa said. “It really is different than what they’re used to.”

“The students really enjoy the hands-on environment and the creative freedom,” she added. “I see the growth in their confidence and in their ability to make something.”

Cora Burkey, an eighth-grader, said she enjoys the class because she can be creative, and that she prefers the hands-on style of learning.

“[My other classes] don’t do anything fun with it. They don’t express it,” Cora said. “They just give you worksheets and talk about it.”

Hunter Strain, also a Burley eighth-grader, agreed.

“I learn in this class by doing stuff and by my mistakes,” Hunter said.

But the new model doesn’t come without challenges.

In addition to constantly learning new technology, Schoppa said that ensuring all students are using the tools safely can be tough with her classroom’s open floorplan.

But, she said, it ultimately results in building trust with the students.

“I have maybe 25 or 28 students in a class and somebody could be cutting something on the scroll saw, somebody could be soldering something … and there’s a lot of movement everywhere,” Schoppa said. “But they’re very good at it and eager to have that freedom.”

Cora said actually executing her ideas has proven difficult.

“You have to think about how you’re going to design it, and then you have to make it,” she said.

Hunter said learning to rebound from mistakes can be time-consuming.

“If you mess up greatly, you usually can’t go back and fix it. You usually have to go back and start all over again,” he said.

Moran said the federal grant ultimately will allow the division to provide excellent learning environments.

“Students learn best when they are highly engaged and excited by the discoveries they create,” she said. “The learning opportunities that will be made possible by these resources truly are transformational.”