A Year of Learning in Our Innovation Lab

For our school’s quarterly magazine, I was asked to write a reflection updating the school community on what we have learned and done as a result of our having Innovation Lab. Here is my first draft:

Learning in the Innovation Lab

by Sheryl Peterson, Arturo Garcia, and Vinnie Vrotny

One year ago, we were actively working on the transformation of the Innovation Lab – choosing color schemes, ordering furniture, cabinets and lighting, ordering equipment, and developing the curricula that our middle school students would experience when they arrived this fall. Looking back at the year, we are excited about what the students have been able to build and create while at the same time noting what we want to tweak and improve in the following years. Here is a sample of what we have learned from the students throughout the year.

More Them, Less Us

Especially in the Computer Science and Design and Engineering trimesters, we have created a framework which allows for student’s to explore the skill to suit their passions rather than having the entire class do the same activity. There are two benefits that this approach have emerged that even visiting educators have observed and commented on. The first is that the students are more engaged in their projects since they control the path of their own learning. The second benefit is the cross-learning which occurs naturally through the interactions and exchanges between learners within the classroom. This co-learning sparks new ideas and pathways to explore from simply inquiring and sharing what they are learning.

This shift in classroom culture and mindset has not occurred naturally. In the fall, we had to push students out of their comfort zone. Many students initially struggled with the notion that they had to find their ideas rather than being handed one, that there was not a common end product, or that we would not answer their question, “is this good enough?” Students were uncomfortable with the notion that this class was about learning rather than teaching. Now in the spring, they have adjusted to this culture shift and we have watched numerous students soar now that they have been given the freedom to define their own path.

Flexible + Adaptive = Explosion of Possibilities

The new lighting, new color palate, and new furniture have changed the mood and functionality of the space. Students now routinely come into the classroom and either set up the tables, group them together to create team workspaces, or move them aside depending on whether they are wanting to film on the green screen, use Makey Makeys, work on design proejcts, or continue on a programming project. Simply reclaiming an area defined for teacher use and not having the First Lego Robotics table dominate the central learning area has allowed the space to be better utilized. We have also created our own project boards where ideas can be sketched, created, and saved for later use. These ideas also spark new creative notions in other students for their own projects.

With all of the furniture on wheels, except the computer workstations and laser cutter, we are able to expand making and building beyond the Innovation Lab and we now move equipment and tools into the Middle School Commons or an individual classroom for specific projects. The flexibility afforded by this type of design allow for creativity and innovation to occur anywhere and everywhere creating a culture and mindset around invention and tinkering rather instead of students feeling that this type of work has to be done in one specialized and defined space.

Students Breaking Barriers

The tools and culture that has been established in the Innovation Lab has allowed students to break through barriers and begin to build and create new and wonderful projects. We have had sixth graders prototyping new furniture mash-ups, combining the functionality of two different pieces of furniture like a table and a bed using the laser cutter and 3d printer. Students have created controllers using Legos and coins, recycled and repurposed joysticks, mini hockey sticks, and gummi worms for programs they have programmed themselves. We have seen students etch and print gifts for siblings, parents, and grandparents. Students have created projects designed to raise awareness of topics surrounding digital citizenship. Parts have been designed and cut for a tower garden for service learning. Math manipulatives have been designed in Minecraft and printed for use in the classroom. Custom designed play-doh cutters have been printed for Koalas and Otters based upon their current units of study. Choral binders now display vinyl-cut Quest Q’s. We have eighth graders building robots that will teach Otters, Koalas, Manatees, and Dolphins the basics of programming.

We are just beginning to scratch the surface and understand what may be possible. We are excited to see what the future holds.

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