"In Innovation Lab, you are tasked with finding problems, finding solutions, hitting walls, things not working, [and then] trying to figure out: Okay, that didn't work, what do I do now?"
"[These are the things that] humans need to be successful in the world: They need to work together, communicate, think critically about problems, and see when they should take a leadership role or when they should let someone else do that. And all of that is just hiding in this really fun place that kids get to go to called the Innovation Lab."
-Tarah Cummings, Instructional Technology Specialist
A Unique Opportunity
Design a bridge and then code small robots to cross it. Build a solar oven. Plan and then construct a table made of only paper and tape that can sustain the weight of multiple reference volumes.
These are just a few of the challenges Lower School students face throughout the school year in one of the school's most loved classes: Innovation Lab.
Kindergarten through fifth graders learn to work in teams (or, at times, independently) to face real problems and engineer real solutions. The goal? Prepare kids with real skills that will empower them to succeed, no matter where life takes them.
What skills do kids learn in the Innovation Lab?
Engineering, Coding, Collaboration, Communication
Goal: Use circuits and coding to create a cardboard guitar that plays music.
Fifth-grade teams designed cardboard guitars that play music! After learning about how circuits work, they applied conductive materials (aluminum foil and paper clips) to cardboard guitars they designed. These conductive materials made keys that would play chords. They used Scratch to code the musical chords, and then hooked the guitars up to computers and made music.
Students need more than solid coding skills or mathematics to succeed in the coming workforce. Research demonstrates that the soft skills (collaboration, perseverance, flexibility, critical thinking, problem solving, creativity, and design thinking) are actually more important for success, even at tech powerhouses like Google, than the hard skills.
This is why students often step away from the computer and pull out the paper, tin foil, and tape. In these hands-on design challenges, students must exercise their ability to work creatively with their classmates to solve problems. What happens when their solution doesn’t work? They troubleshoot and try again, exercising that muscle for perseverance.
Engineering, Communication, Collaboration, Creativity, Critical Thinking, Problem Solving
Goal: Engineer a shelter that slows ice melt and understand the concept of thermal energy.
Fourth-graders tested their understanding of thermal insulators by designing shelters that could slow the melting of ice. Cotton balls, styrofoam cups, aluminum foil, and felt were just a few of the insulators they used. After building their shelters, they measured how much ice melted during a 15-minute time span. Then they went back to the drawing board, where they considered possible weaknesses in their first design, made adjustments, and repeated the experiment. A key question they explored for this challenge was: Why is it important to continue to improve on a design that already works? (Answer: You might come up with something even better.)
Breaking Through Self-Doubt
Students decide as early as second grade whether or not they believe they can excel at math and science.
For some students, using their hands to explore scientific and mathematical concepts creates connections in a way that pen and paper or keyboard just won't. It changes how they see their own ability to learn, impacting their approach to their own education as well their beliefs about what they can accomplish.
Students as young as seven and eight begin telling themselves that they are "good" or "bad" at solving problems, and the Innovation Labs helps them exercise and become confident in this skill.
"It isn't the [computer] that's going to make you smarter. It's about learning skills. The [computer] is just a tool we use sometimes."
-Jim Nelson, Innovation Specialist
Algorithms, Coding, Problem Solving
Goal: Use coding loops to tell a computer program to repeat certain steps at certain times.
Who knew you could use dance moves to teach the concept of loops in coding? Loops, or blocks of code that get used over and over, are essential to building large coding projects. But the concept can feel a bit abstract when you are in first grade. So, instead of starting at the computer, students first worked on a repeating, four-part dance move. Once they understood how to apply the dance sequence in a song, they translated that knowledge into a coding on a computer.
Use the Gifts God Gave for Good
Students learn early on in their Innovation Lab journey that these challenges can be part of their own contribution to the wider work of God in the world. The first task third grade students completed this year was simple: they traced their hands.
For that day, they discussed the idea that God made their hands to do good things in the world and to empower them to use their knowledge for good. This set the "why" for their learning much higher than simply doing cool things and securing a neat job one day.
Maybe a student goes on to solve an agricultural crisis facing developing nations. Or contributes to the Human Genome Project (first led by Christ-follower Francis Collins). Or maybe they become an excellent mechanic, who takes time to help single moms with car troubles.
Karee Smith, Innovation Lab specialist for grades 3-5, adds: "My deep hope is that students feel a sense of belonging and experience joy as we use our hands, minds, and the unique gifts God has given us as we innovate and work together."