Skip To Main Content

Search Panel

Schools Menu

Gibson Ek Measures Success Through Community Impact

Teacher Steven Nelson (wearing hat) poses with his design lab students and Bellevue Botanical Garden staff around the new education kiosk they designed and built.

As classes at Skyline, Issaquah and Liberty high schools prepared to end the year with final exams, many design labs at Gibson Ek High School measured success through their community impact.

In the final two months of school, Gibson Ek students created a multi-language library for Mary’s Place, an outdoor education space for Bellevue Botanical Gardens, and an environmental photography gallery for The Garage and the Issaquah Senior Center.

“Our students are doing some incredible work in the community right now,” said Principal Tonja Reischl.

Gibson Ek High School is an option school that does not offer traditional classes or letter grades, but rather focuses on learning through multidisciplinary projects and internships. Six-week mini-courses are called “design labs” because they usually follow Stanford’s Design Thinking process, focusing on a community need or specific area of interest. Students are encouraged to co-lead labs with a teacher, and professionals frequently visit campus to share challenges and provide feedback on student-proposed solutions.

Mary’s Place intern Julia Kroopkin helped lead the lab “Understanding the Role of Family Shelters” with teacher Jef Rettmann. Volunteer Coordinator Grace Helmcke visited early on to explain Mary’s Place and its needs.

“The Gibson Ek students asked some really good questions. Actually, I’ve spoken to many groups, but I’ve never fielded so many questions. It was impressive,” Helmcke said.

After Helmcke explained that children housed at the Bellevue family shelter could use more books in multiple languages and a quiet place to do homework, the lab jumped into action. Through a book drive linked to Amazon wish lists, students collected hundreds of books for all reading levels in English as well as five languages: French, Spanish, Portuguese, Lingala and Tigrinya.

Students also custom-built and painted the library shelves, and designed and installed a “Murphy desk” – a built-in worktop that can seat up to three students or fold down on hinges against the wall.

“We wanted something that could be moved out of the way for better access to bookshelves,” said junior Shaelin Cobb, who also interns at Mary’s Place.

Another design lab, “Building an Outdoor Classroom,” constructed a covered teaching kiosk for Bellevue Botanical Gardens (BBG). Teacher Steven Nelson had been visiting a student’s internship there when staff mentioned a need for an outdoor instructional space. Two weeks later, Nelson had initiated a lab that included multiple site visits for lab students, and the chalkboard kiosk was finished in June. The partnership will continue in the fall with a design lab aimed at entering freshmen and centered around BBG’s need for outdoor presentation surfaces.

“Now that we have staff there who get our program, they are thinking about ongoing ways to connect with our students,” Nelson said.

Finally, the “Frames of Change” design lab aimed to capture environmental issues with photography, then educate across generations in the community through gallery displays in The Garage teen center and the Issaquah Senior Center.

“Both the teens and the seniors provided written feedback,” said Gibson Ek teacher Victoria Mott. “Connecting students to the broader community shines a light on shared values and interests, which deepens their understanding.”


Mary's Place Volunteer Coordinator Grace Helmke (center) and her interns, juniors Julia Kroopkin (left) and Shaelin Cobb, show off the shelter's new library, which was custom designed and stocked by a Gibson Ek design lab.
Teacher Steven Nelson (wearing hat) poses with his design lab students and Bellevue Botanical Garden staff around the new education kiosk they designed and built.
Sophomore Jack Nguyen explains to a visitor the environmental impact of car tires during the Issaquah Senior Center gallery show.


  • Featured Story