This fall, we're piloting a pre-K to grade five maker/STEM lab at Park Tudor School. Call it planet alignment, but we discovered that for a variety of reasons, we'd have a usable space (formerly a science room) that we could reimagine into something different for the 2018-19 school year. With the ideas of nearly half of our Lower School teachers on our minds, three of us set off for Seattle, Washington to attend the Teacher's Tool Kit workshop in the "BIG Lab" at Evergreen School. It was three days of "flow" - the experience of working on something that is so personally meaningful and challenging that time seems to stand still, or go fast. Basically you have no sense of time. It was that fun, eye-opening, inspiring...just make a plan to go, if you can. Aptly named the WonderLab, our new space would also be a place where little fingers with big imaginations could build, create, program, imagine, wonder, and find their own flow during the school day.
So as a wanna-be-blogger, I told Lindsay Own, the Coordinator of the BIG Lab, that I'd make it a goal to write a post about the experience and it'd be called, well, just what I wrote. Here's what I came up with.
1. Take people with you.
Originally, I was all set to go visit the BIG Lab on my own. It's just kind of what I do. I find these smaller, less well know professional learning experiences that don't really fall into the categories of "workshop" or "conference" and so I usually go on my own because it's tough getting colleagues to trust my intuition (all the baggage from bad conferences really weighs people down). But this time was different. I was able to add the expense of two more people and it was worth every penny. Not only do I have two allies in this endeavor, but we speak a common language now, share a common goal, and see a common vision. Going forward, the WonderLab is the product of a movement, and not just one person's agenda or a flashy, new initiative.
2. Push past uncomfortable.
Or lean into it. Whichever catch phrase you prefer. I guess I'm a perfectionist at heart, never truly comfortable with trying something new because it's physically painful to struggle through something I'm not totally good at. Plus, I'm too impatient to learn from others or read directions - I like to fiddle with new apps and figure them out for myself, not reading instructions until I'm totally frustrated or about to give up.
My time in the BIG Lab forced me to push into the discomfort I had with Adobe Illustrator and Tinkercad, two apps that I'd always avoided because it was "that STEM thing". Other teachers could be good at it, but not me, I used to say. It's their thing, I told myself.
Moving past the discomfort, however, has opened my eyes to so many new experiences and creative opportunities that redesign learning.
3. Don't fall for the flashy, all-in-one, pre-packaged, "this is all you need" stuff.
No offense to great products and their excellent marketing teams, but we won't be falling for the expensive (or even inexpensive) STEM-in-a-box stuff. Not yet, at least. Yes, these products are certainly excellent tools for busy teachers who need to rely on a "plug-n-play" option because of very real classroom constraints, but that's not what we're going for in the WonderLab. Our shopping list for year one includes coin batteries, cardboard cutters, glue guns and sticks, brads, LED lights and craft sticks. We're asking parents to send in beer bottle caps, wine corks, and thin cardboard (think cereal boxes).
4. Yep, a laser printer, vinyl printer, and a 3D printer make kids say, "Look what I made!"
And that's worth the money. There absolutely is a wow-factor that comes from Making and a young child's feeling of accomplishment and ownership of a truly unique product of work is priceless. Whether it's wires and LED lights, or a laser cut cardboard gear, there are just some tools that, for children and adults (I saw and experienced it myself) turn imagination into tangible reality. Purchasing the expensive items that completely redefine the outcome of a project is well worth it.
5. It most definitely is NOT as complicated as you think.
Even more, it doesn't take any specialized knowledge. If it does, that's when you reach out to huge network of folks, like @LindseyOwn, who've been Making and STEM-ing for years. They wouldn't want you to reinvent the wheel. The "Maker Movement", by it's very nature is like an open-source movement. Sharing experiences and information that is freely available, redistributed, modified in ways you see fit. The Teacher's Toolkit workshop was 100% open source. We found that we didn't need to be experts in engineering, circuitry or programming to get started on our own ideas. We tapped into our own "Yet, sensibility" (aka a growth mindset): we may not have all the skills, or tools, or ideas...yet.
So, just start.