Learning by design
GREENWICH — When Erica Westfall, the Glenville PTA co-president, programmed a mechanical mouse to complete an obstacle course and reach its cheese, she threw her hands in the air and felt the same rush of success her daughter feels when she completes the STEM activity.
“She hasn’t stopped talking about it,” Westfall said Tuesday morning after the PTA and Glenville Elementary School officials launched the newly constructed Design Lab, a room in the school’s Media Center where students can build on classroom science and math lessons through STEM activities.
Public and private schools across Greenwich offers space where students can learn STEM skills with their hands. These areas are commonly known as tinker spaces or maker spaces, and often are located in the corner of the school’s media center.
But Glenville’s Design Lab sets itself apart from others in the Greenwich Public Schools district because it is built to be an extension of the classroom. There, students use magnetic tiles, robots and electric circuits and learn how to solve science and math problems that line up with the most updated curricula.
Over this past winter break, the PTA turned the computer lab, where students went to learn typing or take tests, into a blank slate filled with furniture they can move, walls they can write on and science, coding and math puzzles to solve.
“The only limit is their imagination,” said Jennifer Benedict, Glenville PTA president.
Benedict’s job was to make the space “look cool,” Principal Marc D’Amico said.
“It was a lot harder than I imagined,” Benedict said. “You’re trying to imagine a space and design for a future that you haven’t envisioned yet with technology that might not exist yet.”
Glenville administration first started talking about a design lab in January 2018, when teachers were learning and teaching new science standards, and Central Middle School had just finished building its own lab.
The previous year, the Greenwich Alliance for Education gave Glenville a $5,000 grant to buy some of the equipment and activities in the Design Lab today.
Fundraising began in the spring — overall, the parents raised $45,000. The design lab, however, cost less to build and stock, so the remaining money will be put toward updating the space as technology evolves, Benedict said.
District Elementary Instructional Coach Sarah Perez and Media Specialist Jacquelin Carlin took D’Amico’s basic idea for the lab and cultivated it, the Glenville principal said.
“We wanted it to be an extension of the classroom,” Carlin said. “A lot of great work is done in the classroom, but we wanted them to think outside the box. We wanted to promote rigor and problem-solving, because those are skills our kids need to have.”
In the lab, Perez has watched students work together, set goals, solve problems, revise their thinking when something does not work, she said.
Over the last two weeks, every classroom kindergarten through fifth grade has come at least once to try out the activities, and the kids love it, parents said.
“My daughter wants a Design Lab at home,” Benedict said.
The Design Lab reflects the changes to the national science curriculum, Chief Academic Officer Irene Parisi said.
Under the old curriculum, science standards changed yearly but did not build on the previous year, Parisi said. The new standards connect topics from year to year and blend together science and mathematics. In particular, one new focus is data literacy, she said. Students are starting to learn how to read and create data tables.
“I’m hoping what will happen is that all of them will evolve into design labs, and not just tinker spaces, I think those are narrower,” Parisi said.
When the Design Lab was a computer lab, it was designed for one thing: using computers, IT Support Technician Ian Kennedy said.
“Now, when I watch the kids in here go to different stations, it’s opened up infinite possibilities - what do I want to do today?” he said. “They’re integrating what they do here with what they do in classrooms. I go into the classrooms all the time, and I see them using the skills that they learned here in the class.”
Kennedy has watched the students work with the activities with an aptitude even he cannot keep up with.
“I find myself sitting at the tables a lot, and (saying) ’Teach me how you do this,” he said.