Robotics, software engineering, mechanics, circuitry, digital media arts. This reads like a college course catalog, but peer over the large monitor in one of the two new School IDEA Labs and you’ll find a fourth grader heavily focused on animating her digitally drawn car. Across the lab, her classmate is adding the final pieces to a miniature Ferris wheel. Later in the day, the kindergarten class will use the lab to explore the relationship between wheels and dowels to accomplish a task or solve a problem.
This isn’t college for kids. Or, maybe it is!
In the Upper School IDEA Lab (formerly the Social Center), upbeat music is playing throughout the industrial-looking room, and a class full of freshmen are scattered at workstations resembling large fidget spinners. Students are working with partners on a variety of projects. One group is testing their solar car in preparation for the upcoming intergroup race. Another team is designing a trustworthy bridge that meets budget, material, and weight parameters.
“It looks toy-ish here,” admits STEM Facilitator and Integration Specialist Tommie Traylor, “but it has a real-world connection.” That connection meets the objectives Principia’s EdTech staff laid out in early 2019, when the initial idea for the IDEA Lab was discussed. They recognized the value of integrating STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) learning with the traditional academic curriculum as a way of developing skills in communication, collaboration, critical thinking, problem solving, information literacy, and adaptability.
In spring 2019, the EdTech staff began researching various lab models, meeting with leading lab developers, and traveling to schools throughout the country to observe labs in action. The team knew they needed more than a fabrication laboratory (Fab Lab), which provides the tools to execute STEM-related projects but lacks curriculum. Ultimately, their journey led to a partnership with Creative Learning Systems, and in April 2020, two Creative Learning Systems SmartLabs, renamed IDEA Labs, were installed on campus.
Students in all grades (except Preschool) have access to the labs, working within eight broad topic areas: Circuitry; Computer Graphics; Digital Communications; Mechanics & Structures; Robotics & Control Technology; Scientific Data & Analysis; Software Engineering; and Sustainability. The IDEA Lab’s approach to learning is highly personalized, empowering students to shape their learning to meet their individual interests, abilities, and learning styles. High school students and upper elementary grades rotate from project-to-project throughout the year while younger students engage in whole-class, teacher-led activities. Middle School students use the lab's curriculum to enhance core integrated studies classes. All grade levels are learning to become markedly more self-reliant.
Lower School IDEA Lab Facilitator Mollie Grant’s motto is “ask three before me” to encourage students to problem solve with their peers first and become more independent along the way. “The whole purpose is to teach them to be problem solvers,” she says. “If they struggle, it’s totally okay. They will figure it out. And that is what makes this process so rewarding.”
Creative Learning System SmartLabs are in more than 600 schools nationwide, but Principia’s are the first two in the region. This distinction provides opportunity for community engagement ranging from student-community give-back projects to STEM summer camps for Principia and other St. Louis-area students.
Perhaps you’ll find yourself in one of the labs assembling a hydrogen fuel cell activated with a solar panel to spin a fan. Why not!