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Paducah’s Hub of Innovation

Paducah’s Hub of Innovation

  • J.T. Crawford

Steve Ybarzabal beams with the joy of a child waking up on Christmas morning as he flits exuberantly down the wide hallways of Paducah Tilghman High School’s new Innovation Hub. “Oh, you’ve got to see this over here,” he exclaims, his eyes widening with the joy of remembering something else to showcase.

Steve makes his way down a hall, pointing out the art classrooms on the left and the school’s maker space on the right. “You have these individual classrooms and spaces,” he says, “but all of this can be opened up into one big space to include the hallway.” Such functionality highlights a major shift in education—the reflection of a world steeped in ever-evolving technology and convergence. “Here’s one small example,” Steve adds. “We had art students working on interlocking cardboard sculptures, using Exacto knives to cut out pieces. It was taking them 20 minutes or so for each piece. The art teacher went over the maker space to check out some of the tools. He found that they could use a laser cutter to make the pieces. Instead of making one piece in 20 minutes, they made one per minute. And they were precise. It was a cool, teachable moment for both teachers and students.” The collaboration revealed the connectivity between design and manufacturing, presenting to the students a real-world challenge that some of them might face in the future.

“Here, your only limit is your imagination,” smiles Steve. At the Innovation Hub, that’s not just a cliché. The school system planned and built the Hub around a swirling array of possibilities. And now that the school is open, the convergence of ideas and disciplines manifests into even more potentials. The great windows found in much of the building illustrates it perfectly as they welcome and diffuse beams of sunlight, splitting them into new, prismed revelations.

The Innovation Hub building houses three, main areas. “There is the maker space,” says Steve, “where kids grade K through 12 accomplish hands-on, project-based learning, helping open their eyes to problem solving, working in teams, and design processes. It ranges from using basic hand tools to high tech devices like 3D printers, laser engravers, and CNC routers. Then there are classes specific to Tilghman such as engineering, physics, CAD, robotics, health sciences, art, and IT. We’ll also be adding a drone class. Then in the Paducah Area Technology Center we have auto tech, auto body, auto painting, welding, and carpentry. And we have the best of everything when it comes to equipment. We want the students to work with technology that they would be using at a job.”

Steve Ybarzabal

The genesis of the Hub came from the desire to create a stronger link between public education and potential careers, specifically focusing on jobs in our region—industries like river transportation, IT, construction, automotive, health sciences, and more. “There are many opportunities for careers right here that a lot of people don’t know about,” says Steve. “The river industry alone will need 3,000 people in the next five years. And then there are all the services that support them—for example, welders and diesel technicians. And diesel mechanics can work with the river industry, railroad, agriculture, and heavy equipment. The possibilities keep branching out, and they are all needed right here. And these jobs continue to get more complex and more tech-driven.”

Coursework at the Hub can lead interested students toward certifications like ASE in auto tech, auto collision repair, auto painting, welding, carpentry, phlebotomy, and EKG and MNA for pre-nursing. Steve has also been working with Mercy Regional EMS on potentially offering EMT certification. “We found out that we already teach all the prerequisites and just need the actual EMT class. Through a collaboration with Mercy, we are going to be able to offer that to high school kids.”

A new partnership with Mercy highlights how the Hub not only works with local industry but depends on them for success. “In IT, for example, we partner with CSI,” says Steve. “They have a great thing going.” The school also works with companies such as Ingram Barge, Paducah Barge, and Baptist Hospital where health students attend some classes onsite. Additionally, there are apprenticeship opportunities in most fields, allowing students to not only get hands-on experience but also engage with potential employers. “We had a student from McCracken County High School last year who was in the welding program. He went to school full-time and after school every day worked full-time as a welder. Later, we connected him with a river industry partner. Right out of school, he has a career, not just a job.”

The Innovation Hub also offers classes in related fields such as engineering and art. “For those who want to pursue engineering,” says Steve, “they can take some trade classes. That builds better engineers who know the hands-on side of things. A student can engineer something, go draw up a blueprint in CAD, and build it in carpentry or welding.” Graduating seniors moving into fields such as engineering, physics, and design have a solid core of completed education, making them highly competitive.

“We are also training kids to be good problem solvers and good thinkers,” adds Steve, “building into the curriculum skills that will make them employable—skills they need to even get their foot in the door. Teaching responsibility is part of what we do because that’s what we’ve heard from our industry partners.” The school also builds in opportunities to learn about things like business management, creating an educational path that is well-rounded.

And all of this is just the beginning. Steve would like to see more disciplines brought into the mix—professions such as plumbing, electrical work, and HVAC. There are already plans for teaching virtual reality coding. “Certified students can graduate high school and start a job at $44K a year,” says Steve. “It’s an up-and-coming industry that will affect all other industries. They’re doing things like virtual hearts for surgeons to practice on or offering architects a way to showcase a building they designed with a virtual walkthrough. Like everything else we have here, there are tons of possibilities.”

Steve wants to keep the Hub at the forefront of this continuing shift in education. And beyond the new technology and fun projects, administrators and teachers keep a laser focus on the meaning of it all, which is to support the school system’s vision of knowing each and every student by name and need, helping them reach their full potentials. “We are becoming more end-product oriented,” says Steve. “We are asking, where are these kids going to be in four years? Are we giving them the foundation they need for a successful career or a successful start in life, or are we just cranking them through an assembly line? This is allowing us to be flexible to meet the needs of our students. It’s exciting—helping kids find their way.”

Steve Ybarzabal is a native of the Big Easy. He grew up in New Orleans and attended LSU where he met Paducahan Susan Bright. After some time in Mobile, Alabama, the couple moved to Paducah where Steve became the Dean of Students at St. Mary. In 2000, he made a move to Tilghman to teach biology. There, he added teaching AP psychology and became the science department chair. He later went to Clark Elementary where he served as Assistant Principal and then Principal. “My children went to Clark, my wife went to Clark, and her father went to Clark,” says Steve. “It was my tenth year as principal there when I was asked to come to the Innovation Hub. And who wouldn’t love doing something like this?”


The Innovation Hub building contains many fascinating features. An open design with plenty of hallway windows allows students to readily view what’s going on in different parts of the building, thus fostering curiosity and creativity. Lots of external windows make use of natural light, thus saving money. And, on cloudy days, the school’s lighting automatically adjusts to compensate. Additionally, geothermal technology is used to offset costs in climate control.

The school’s main staircase features a large area for socialization, an important aspect in collaboration among disciplines. A massive flat panel screen in the lobby allows for the area to also be used for presentations. Additional social areas offer opportunities for collaboration and presentations.

The main parking lot will feature a bio-swale thanks to a donation from Four Rivers Nuclear Partnership. Bio-swales are depressed, landscape gardens that collect rain runoff from the Innovation Hub property. It will slow the amount of stormwater flowing into drains, thus reducing flooding issues. Bioswales are also natural filters, sending cleaner water to our river.


Community partnerships allow students to gain real-world experience, work with potential employers, and sometimes raise funds for their programs. Here are some of the Innovation Hub’s current industry collaborators:

O’Reilly Auto Parts
Four Rivers Harley Davidson
Paducah Barge
Ingram Barge
Harper Construction
Ray Black and Son
Bacon, Farmer, Workman
Triangle Enterprise
McKeel Equipment

Anyone interested in working with the Hub should contact principal Steve Ybarzabal.


The Innovation Hub features the in-house coffee shop, STEAM (Science Technology Engineering Art Math). It not only gives students opportunities to learn about aspects of food service, there is a connection to their business classes.

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