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YouTube founder uploads million-dollar boost to Illinois alma mater

The IMSA Innovation Center is scheduled to open in 2016. |All renderings courtesy of Edelman.

Long before YouTube co-founder Steve Chen made his fortune in Silicon Valley, he was a student at the Illinois Math and Science Academy in Aurora. Now, the tech entrepreneur is providing crucial funding for a $1.9 million innovation center the school has been planning since 2008.

YouTube co-founder Steve Chen has donated $1 million to his old school, the Illinois Science and Math Academy in Aurora. | Getty Images

Chen’s $1 million donation in November 2013 covers more than half of the expenses for the 6,400-square-foot IN2 Steve and Jamie Chen Center for Innovation & Inquiry, said Michael Abrahamson, a spokesman for the academy.

Expected to open in 2016, the facility will have space for IMSA students and others from the community to work together to take a concept and turn it into a viable business model, Abrahamson said.

The center will house an “idea bar” — a place staffed with personnel who are trained to help students think things through — as well as conference rooms and the latest technology, including 3D printers, according to Britta McKenna, IMSA’s chief innovation officer.

McKenna, who’s at the helm of the project, said the academy worked with Chen to craft the design of the innovation center after he expressed interest in donating to the school. Since then, school administrators have been working to get the state permits needed to break ground.

The academy is a residential state school offering advanced education in science, technology, engineering and math, a field of study often known by its acronym, STEM. It has about 650 students in grades 10 to 12.

The school already had started creating digital mentorship and business programs for students through partners such as 1871, a tech business incubator in Chicago; however, the new center will allow IMSA to create more classes in which students learn to develop business proposals, actively work on their projects and engage with local businesses.

“We’ve been looking to embed innovation and entrepreneurship into our classes,” said academy president Jose Torres. “Innovation is as important as technology and engineering.”

The academy’s innovation center will feature workshops, conference rooms and spaces where students can work on their projects and business proposals.

Torres said in the 1980s, the academy had led the way in STEM education, but now such topics are a regular part of the curriculum at many other schools. He said the academy wants to “regain leadership as a laboratory for learning” by focusing on innovation and entrepreneurship.

New classes will incorporate computer science, engineering and entrepreneurship, McKenna said.

The school still must raise the rest of the money for the project — about $900,000 — and expects to have about $650,000 of that by summer, when construction is scheduled to start, McKenna said. The rest will be raised as the project advances, according to McKenna, who added that although the land where the center will be built belongs to the state, all funds for the project are private.

The officer added that IMSA has already been helping other institutions, such as the Aurora Public Library, build similar, if smaller, spaces that feature some of the same technology that will be available at the center.

Chen is not the only academy alum and tech entrepreneur to donate to the school. Match.com CEO San Yagan and his wife, Jessica Droste Yagan, another graduate, also have donated in the past, as has David Kang from Facebook.