In 2012, an empty warehouse on the campus of Chattanooga State Community College soon became home to educator Tony Donen's vision. In the fall of that year, STEM School Chattanooga opened its doors.

"I looked at it as an opportunity to really make an impact to change education in a way to connect kids and engage kids that we weren't doing in a traditional setting," Principal Donen says.

STEM stands for "Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math." Traditionally, STEM consisted of students simply taking more of these classes, but Donen wanted to change this. 

"What STEM [now] allows you to do is connect those disciplines together in a way that makes each of them meaningful," Donen explained. "Then they go, 'oh, that's why I'm learning this, this is what I need to do with this information.'"

Donen says STEM School Chattanooga was the first in the city to supply every student with an electronic device for educational purposes and the first to use the gig network. However, the school is about much more than just the technology.

Donen's modern Project Based Learning approach is innovative and student-centered. They work together to solve problems with only occasional guidance from teachers and encouragement from sponsors like Unum, EPB and the Hunter Museum. It's an approach that Donen has shared with other educators who have subsequently adopted it.

Lin, a junior, says studying at STEM has helped her come out of her shell since her freshman year.

"I'm able to sit here and present a poster that I made or a project we've created cohesively to sponsors who are here for our projects," Lin said.

It's helped Jewel, also a junior, build her confidence. 

"It's just a super-welcoming environment that I think I wouldn't have had if [I] would have gone to a school that I was zoned for," Jewel explained.

Donen's work has earned him Tennessee's STEM Innovator award for 2018. He's proud and humbled by the recognition and realizes he couldn't have done it alone.

"It showcases what our students are doing and especially what our staff's been doing. I'm just the lucky recipient," Donen admitted.

STEM School Chattanooga has received recognition across the world as a leading "learner school," and Donen has trained many educators on his techniques and ideas. He'll receive his award in Nashville on May 9 at the fourth annual Tennessee STEM Innovation Summit.