All aboard

TxDOT asks Houstonians for input on rail projects

If you have an opinion about trains, here's your chance. Rendering courtesy of Texas Central

The Texas Department of Transportation is updating a document called the Texas Rail Plan and is seeking input from the public.

The update is designed to reflect the latest rail project priorities and fulfill eligibility requirements for federal funding. Federal requirements say that states' rail plans must be updated every four years to establish policy, priorities, and implementation strategies for freight and passenger rail in the state.

The Texas Rail Plan includes a list of current and future rail projects, which are also depicted on a map. The plan keeps inventory of all rail lines; analyzes rail service goals and contributions to the economy; catalogs and assesses potential infrastructure projects; and examines finance strategies.

The update project began in summer 2018. Meetings of stakeholders were held, and now there's an opportunity for public input. (Stakeholders include citizens, neighboring states, public agencies, and the private rail industry.)

There'll be another round of meetings in the spring, and then the updated plan will be released in summer 2019.

TxDOT hosted a public meeting on December 11, when it presented the update and asked for public questions and input. After that meeting, they extended their deadline for comments to March 1, 2019.

As for now, the public can review and provide input on the plan via this website which explains the history of the Rail Plan and some of the reasons why an update is being done.

There's a survey and online form to submit public comments until January 8, 2019.

If you feel equipped to answer 10 questions such as, "What could be done in Texas to improve freight rail access, promote economic development, and enhance the state's competitiveness in national markets and the global marketplace?" — then this survey should be right up your alley. (Although it should be noted that the hardest questions are first and they get easier as you go along. Also, it's multiple choice.)

These options provide an opportunity for the public to comment on all rail-related issues in Texas, both freight and passenger, as well as existing and future projects and programs.

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This story originally appeared on CultureMap.

Ghazal Qureshi wanted to engage her own kids in educational activities. Now, her programing has expanded worldwide. Courtesy of Idea Lab Kids

Ghazal Qureshi was looking for a way to engage her children in after school education. After failing to find anything that existed, she started brainstorming a new, engaging education model.

"From the beginning, we were never restricted by trying to make money. It was a passion project only," Qureshi says.

Qureshi turned her passion project into IDEA Lab Kids, an education program focused on STEAM, which stands for science, technology, engineering, arts, and math. She opened 18 locations in Houston, and, two years ago, she expanded the brand into a franchise business — the Idea Lab International Franchise Company. Now the company has locations across the United States and around the world.

The passion she had at Idea Lab's start has become an essential part of each franchise location, and Qureshi is seeking out franchise partners just as passionate to "take our idea far and wide," she says

"We are educating the future innovators and entrepreneurs of tomorrow," Qureshi says.

Front of class
Idea Lab locations around the country are engaging children from pre-k through high school in hands-on projects that reflect their own interests. Qureshi's goal is to take learning beyond the classroom.

"Anytime kids are out of school, Idea Lab is in session," says Qureshi.

Qureshi recalls that when fidget spinners were dubbed a distraction in traditional schools, children in Idea Labs were studying how the toy's motor operates, and were actually creating their own spinners using 3-D printers.

"Idea Lab picks up the slack in areas that traditional schools are unequipped to excel," explains Qureshi.

Small class sizes, and an array of technology and materials give children attending their after-school programs, weekend workshops, summer camps, or birthday parties the opportunity to use technologies that they may not otherwise be exposed to.

"You'll never see our kids just listening to lectures; it's all project-based," she says. "We are training them for the skills they will need for their jobs in the next 5, 10, 15 years."

Getting the ball rolling
Qureshi began Idea Lab in Houston seven years ago, inspired by the challenge of raising her own children with quality STEAM education.

"My background is in IT," she explains, "but I felt like I was really missing out on being part of my children's lives, so I decided to leave corporate life. I put my energy into my kids and finding the best educational opportunities for them. But I realized there was a void."

With the need to build and create inherent in her personality, Qureshi quickly saw her new company begin to grow.

Qureshi's oldest son, now headed for college, is a big part of her personal success story with her Idea Lab program. She saw his creativity and motivation for learning blossom throughout his years of Idea Lab classes such as coding movie production, or robotics. Qureshi is excited that Idea Lab still provides the same educational boost to thousands of children that she saw so profoundly impact her son.

Especially after her experience in starting her own business, Qureshi wants to encourage future entrepreneurs through Idea Lab's entrepreneurship program. Projects that children develop within this program embody all aspects of the blended learning STEAM model, plus a good measure of critical thinking and creativity. Children may build their own restaurant, and as founders, managers, and chefs, they must create menus and pricing, recipes with units of measure, 3-D printed objects such as spoons, and navigate other realities of owning a small business. Equally as important, children must learn to collaborate toward common goals, and utilize each other's strengths.

Ready for graduation
The company is actively looking for expansion opportunities and prospective franchisees.

"The ideal franchisee," Qureshi says, "is someone who 'gets' the void in the education, understands the education industry, or has kids for whom they haven't been able to find great programs for."

Thus far, Idea Lab has 52 assigned territories in the United States, six in Canada, one opening soon in Ecuador, and talks are beginning with other country partners. Although for Qureshi, founding Idea Lab from the ground up required countless hours of dedication.,

"When you buy a franchise, everything is all worked out for you, all the hardship has been taken out of it, as someone has already done the trial and error," Qureshi says.

Idea Lab provides materials and models for everything from tested and vetted curriculum to implementation of their programs, making it as easy as possible to hit the ground running.

As Idea Lab keeps its finger on the pulse of the next wave of innovation to motivate children, and grow their business, they are looking for partners who are interested in helping to provide a creative education to the community.

As Qureshi always tells parents, "with a little bit of a push, you'll be surprised by how many new things kids can learn through their own exploration, if given the opportunity."