As long as there have been students and schools there have been questions about relevancy.

“When you were in math class or chemistry class, you might have dealt with a series of problems that teachers had assigned to you, and you asked yourself, ‘What’s the relevance of this?’” says Stanley Thompson, senior program director for education at the Heinz Endowments.

The Heinz Endowments will try to help students answer that question through the Pittsburgh Readiness Institute (PRI), which will train students to apply knowledge to real-world problems.

For example, students could apply their chemistry expertise to a community with lead in its water, or in the paint in old houses. They could test water quality, engage with researchers on the issue, learn about mitigation strategies and devise a plan for solutions, says Thompson, who will serve as executive director of the institute.

This summer, the institute will launch a six-week pilot program with 50 students from across Allegheny County who are entering their senior year of high school. It will focus on tackling real industry and community issues — making the students “future ready” for productive lives after high school.

“This gives students the opportunity to get out, to take their ideas, to share them, to complement what others may be doing,” says Thompson. “They’re empowered to come up with answers to some questions that don’t have easy answers, but it provides the chance for creativity and innovation.”

Students will work in teams and each team will have instructors — including an educator, a business professional and a community leader — who will help guide student projects.

Community College of Allegheny County, the University of Pittsburgh and the Consortium for Public Education will be partners. The institute will be housed at CCAC on the North Side, or at Pitt, or split between campuses. The Heinz Endowments is investing $700,000 in the PRI, at first, with plans to make it a year-round program by 2022.

Students will get a stipend for participating.

“They’re going to be paid to think, and to come up with solutions for some very real problems,” says Thompson. “They’re going to be paid to collaborate. They’re going to be paid to know the importance of coming up with a prototype.”

In the process, Thompson wants to get students thinking about questions such as Who am I? Who do I want to become? How do I get there? How do I continue to grow? How do I give back to my community?

“We think we’re going to provide kids with something that will set them up to be the kind of problem-solvers that we hear industry and community leaders say they really need, in order to help us to thrive intellectually, economically and civically,” says Thompson.

In its announcement of the Pittsburgh Readiness Institute last week, the Heinz Endowments said its decision was based in part on a 2016 report by the Allegheny Conference on Community Development. That report predicted the 10-county region will have a shortage of 80,000 workers by 2025.

Every student will receive a digital portfolio of work that they’ve done. Thompson says that this will demonstrate to schools and employers the soft skills that are marketable in the real world, like time management, leadership, collaboration and creativity.

“I think that those in education, industry and the community — when they get to see how kids are thinking and what they are able to produce — this is going to be the thing that convinces them that these students are really incredible and worth investing in,” says Thompson.