Situated in the Silicon Valley, Menlo’s has a reputation as an elite school with strong traditions of academic success. The main purpose of our visit to Menlo was to visit one of the largest and most advanced STEM lab, the Arthur Allen Whitaker Lab.


Spanning the size of 3 basketball courts, Menlo’s lab is an example of what can be achieved with a blank cheque. Although the students were not there, the prototypes, models and innovation were on show as proposals for inventions lined the walls and the display areas amazed many of us.

Students had 3D printed and electronically powered a lower arm prosthesis. A robot that was driven by a golf fish, sensors on the tank tracking the fish’s movement. It was a great example of when you can create a culture and allow creativity to flourish matched with the support the lab and its support team that anything is possible.

State of the Art equipment such as laser cutters, industrial wood working machinery, custom workbenches… it was very impressive.


The team there which includes a D&T Teacher and a lab tech work with students during and after school, even opening the Lab on Saturdays as an extracurricular option.


Castilleja School is a private independent girl’s school located in Palo Alto, California. It is set on a beautiful campus and we arrived during the summer program so whilst there wasn’t anyone in classes, there was a warm welcoming and genuine feel about the place. The high achieving school offers its students the best in all aspects of student life. They describe their school as being “Intellectual Utopia”.

After a quick tour of the campus we were fortunate to visit the Bourn Idea Lab and speaking with its Director, Angi Chau. This quickly became the highlight of my trip. The Bourne Idea Lab is the schools maker space and there was so much to take from this visit.


Angi is an engineer/teacher who decided on a career change and is an amazingly passionate, inspiring and most humble teacher you would ever meet. Having someone like that at the helm, you can see why teachers want to work with her.

From the physical workspace, the lab is a colourful, vibrant and engaging. Words don’t do it justice so here is a video walk through with Angi.

What you won’t see is class sets of 3D printers, just a space with access to every type of tool and resource a student needs to be creative. From paper, to electronics, robotics, wood and metal machinery, 3d Printer and laser cutter, to a sewing machine…. It looked like such an inviting space and careful planning helped create a space that felt welcoming and engaging for the girls at Castilleja.

Angi talked about a ‘Resident Tinkerer’ contributing to the success of the program. They had managed to find local engineers that could assist with some projects or throw their expertise in refining a class activity. An example we heard was the science teacher who wanted the students to learn about microscopes. This was a 6 period project however the ‘tinkerer’ created a kit that allowed students to build a microscope and play with focal lengths and allow this to fit into one period.

The Bourne Idea Lab would be an amazing place to spend some time when students are in action.


The Urban School was founded in 1966 and prides itself on its use of technology and innovation. The school has adopted blended learning models, offering courses through a LMS and video conferencing but also maintaining teaching contact time. They were also in the middle of constructing a new lab. This was my first exposure to listening about how they developed and implemented their STEM curriculum which they cleverly market under the name ‘Urban X Labs’.


During the presentation I found myself reflecting on how our curriculum differs. Urban School offers courses on electronics, coding, robotics and graphic design. Courses we would offer under a Design and Technology learning area but they also include Physics and Science under their X Labs umbrella. It sparked in me a rethink of how we resource each of our learning areas. Most schools have Science Labs with Science Lab Technicians. A Materials and Design and Technology Department with its own unique equipment and Technicians. It became increasingly apparent that by creating a flexible lab equipped with resources from multiple learning areas it creates an opportunity to blend, innovate and develop cross curricular activities that promote critical thinking, problem solving and higher order thinking. It would provide these connections in such an organic way.

Whilst we didn’t see it in action, I was happy to see that the curriculum leaders has a chance to develop courses and commit to project based learning (PBL) activities all before they designed and built their lab.

It reminded me of a powerful image I once saw at a conference about a garden with beautiful lawns where students had ignored paved paths, wearing away the lawn and trodden through garden beds. A contemporary thinker would have planted grass everywhere and after seeing where people walk then plan out where to place paths and garden beds.

This contemporary thinking was evident at Urban School and we heard of how other local schools funded amazing labs only for them to be empty.

What a great way to start the tour.

Microsoft AISWA, San Francisco 2016

Study Tour Group @ Microsoft Technology Centre Silicon Valley

Study Tour Group @ Microsoft Technology Centre Silicon Valley

Friday 24th of June 2016 saw the tour head to Mountain View, Silicon Valley for an amazing experience at the Microsoft Technology Centre. We were welcomed by a very energetic and passionate group of staff who would host us for several hours of discussion and demonstrations.

Our initial discussion revealed  a number of various ideas that the group hoped to highlight throughout the day. DSC_1729Using an 84″ Surface hub, which I am sure I can safely say blew us all away, the Microsoft Team noted our queries for further discussion. The hub itself features a 4K, 100 point multi touch screen with inbuilt speakers, cameras and motion sensors. Taking interactive whiteboards to a whole new level, the system runs a configured version of Windows 10 and leverages both OneNote and Office365 to host software controlled Whiteboarding, Video Calling and the ability to wirelessly connect devices. The device can sit in your organisation on its own resource account and thus anyone can walk into the room and use the device without having to login, saving both time and effort during a meeting initialisation.

WP_20160624_14_54_12_ProWe were then treated to an experience in the Microsoft Vision Centre, one of 40 across the globe. Easily one of the most amazing conference rooms I have ever seen. Anshika Goyal proceeded to give us a demonstration of Skype Meeting Broadcast. This system leverages the Office365 Skype for Business technology to allow broadcasting of sessions across the globe, a great idea for remote learning session – especially for isolated schools, but also for collaboration between local schools. The broadcast video is buffered by 30 seconds, which allows for a more seamless streaming experience. When setting up the broadcast you can also choose to record the session, which can then be saved into your organisations Office365  Videos. The session broadcast can also be targeted through organisational groups or individuals. In the Vision Centre we were also shown Microsoft Forms which is another great Office365 feature that is currently only in Preview mode, but will offer a great link to Power BI for analytics and assessment.

After a short break, Jarek Kazmierczak, who is a systems architect within the Machine Learning, Artificial Intelligence and Data Analytics department, gave us all an incredible insight into the future of dealing with big data. It was mentioned that a recent Bloomberg article stated that in the coming years 20-25% of white-collar jobs will be gone, including jobs from Financial, Commerce and Law, all to be replaced by machines. In this scenario, 85% of data will be coming from non-traditional means i.e. from sensors in remote machines and then analysed and managed by Cloud systems. It is all encompassed in the 4th ParDSC_1736adign of Science, by Jim Gray. The fourth Industrial Revolution is coming! Microsoft has positioned itself to be a world leader in managing the cloud services required to deal with the vast quantities of data. The Cortana Intelligence Suite aims to achieve the following from the incoming data:

  • See
  • Hear
  • Interpret
    • Predict
    • Prescribe
    • Automate
      • Collect
      • Manage
      • Store

Some neat tools Jarek showed us that is currently using this technology include: CaptionBot ; and for more of these types of tools, take a look at Microsoft’s Cognitive Services API’s

The Microsoft team has spent time over the last few years listening to what their customers wanted out of their Windows experience, especially when it comes to education. When developing Windows 10, the following items were listed as important to educators:

  • 21st century learning
  • Flipped classroom
  • Differentiated learning
  • Project based learning
  • New collaboration Modes

To this end, the July 2016 Windows 10 Anniversary will include some great education features:

  • “Take a Test” App – to assist in the creation of tests and collection of results.
  • “Set up School PC’s App” to assist Schools in setting machine policies across devices.
  • Enhancements to the Windows Store for Business to help in App deployment within organisations.

Alec Minty who works within the Azure team gave us some great insight into the Azure systems and options. The current thinking is that most organisations will still have both local and cloud-based datacentres for the foreseeable 5 years – it is difficult to predict this beyond 10 years. Microsoft has become the Leader on 19 of Gartner’s Magic Quadrants relating to the ability to envision and execute cloud DC’s. It is also one of the top 3 networks in the entire world. If you have any queries regarding the safety and security of your data within the cloud, Alec explained that Microsoft will fight in court to protect your data and their NOC team does not have access to your data – the customer always retains the ownership of data and this is protected. For more information regarding compliance see

The final session of the afternoon was presented by Rajesh Agadi. It gave us a glimpse into the future of the Internet of Things. Gartner predicts that by 2020 there will be 25 billion connected devices. It is estimate that this will have a commercial value of $7.2 trillion USD by 2020. Microsoft fits into this scenario with their Azure Services, their IoT services and their Azure IoT Suite. It gives organisations the ability to collect and manage their data in a useful and value-add way, as the Azure computing power is far greater than a small company could possibly purchase and manage. So how could this work in education? Some examples listed were regarding the Digitisation of attendance management through Beacons and connected personal devices. Teachers would no longer be required to take attendance, as the system automatically collects the data with the student simply being in the room with their connected device. The beacon system could also be used to direct students around a large campus, to ensure they get to the right lesson at the right time. When embarking on an IoT project, their motto is “Start Small, Be Aglie, Go Fast, and realise value while you move”.

The day session at Microsoft was truly an amazing experience and I know that everyone in the tour was extremely appreciative of the time and effort that the Microsoft team put in to provide our demonstration. Whilst the day was filled full of information, it still felt like we could have stayed for many more hours and asked many more questions regarding our initial queries. I am hopeful once we return to Australia that we can continue on our Cloud journey and perhaps seek some local support to answer any outstanding questions. All-in-all a fantastic day.


Polar views on generating creativity

It was exciting to be at Google for a second time. In the last 2 years, there have been a heap of developments including an explosion of Chrome Books and GAFE – in US education particularly, being 50%+ of tech represented in US schools!! –  and Google cardboard. The experience via the latter is so immersive that if you are riding the virtual roller-coaster you need some steadying…even if sitting down! Great to see the Google Garage and the giant SQrL too.


Out of interest, Silicon Valley offers examples of polarised views of generating an environment that sparks creativity. There is the Google model where the environment is playful and wild and collaborative and vibrant and energetic so that ideas can spark and generate and bounce around. And there is the Apple model where we have previously seen the environment as clean, neutral coloured, calm and controlled so that there seems to be an external calm that would allow ones head to explode with ideas without the external confusion. Horses for courses, as they say. Each has merit. Some thinking styles would benefit from one, and some from the other. As big players in Silicon Valley I guess they attract the right people for their style. Maybe keep that in mind when managing the students in your class during creative projects and offer them the “headspace” they need, taking a leaf from the books of these two successful corporations.

Ideas and Innovation

What a week! And it still isn’t over. My mind has been filled and expanded with the many different (but strikingly similar) educational philosophies and ideas of the schools we’ve visited, particularly with the way each of them have implemented their maker spaces and places of ideas and innovation. This tour is slowly brining me to the belief that these spaces are going to become critical in preparing students for the careers and jobs that don’t yet exist.

Given that even Google believes strongly enough in developing a maker/tinkerer culture, and given that they’ve dedicated resources to build their own, it speaks volume about the potential power of these spaces.


It’s been great to see and compare the size and scale of a maker space like the Menlo School Whitaker Lab, right through to the early stages of the Urban X lab (which we didn’t even get to see in the making!)

Comparing all of the labs to the Google Garage maker space also adds further interest. While we couldn’t take photos in Google’s lab, I actually loved the intensive and frenetic nature and pace of Google’s space; things everywhere, computers in various stages of function, projects being worked on, whiteboards with ideas scrawled over them, materials strewn throughout the lab. For me, this would be a great space to work in – I like to be organised, but when I’m in the middle of working through ideas I am all over the place. Obviously not everyone’s style!



If I could head back home and implement one lab we’ve seen, verbatim, it would have to be the Castilleja School’s Bourne Idea Lab. Firstly – that name! It elicits intrigue and suspense. The lab was named after a gentleman that contributed to ‘tinkering’ in the school and volunteered in supporting their early programs, but has since passed away. I can’t help but think of an action-filled Ludlum storyline.

Their Lab Director is a wonderfully excited young woman named Angi Chau. Angi has qualifications in electrical engineering, and a real passion for education and developing a maker/tinkerer culture. This is infectious. Good staffing seems like the first place to start!

While Castilleja strives to excel in all areas (educating the whole student), they’ve made what seems like a conscious and concerted effort to implement STEM. Compared to some of the other places we’ve visited, Castilleja seems to be approaching STEM and developing a maker/project-based culture carefully and are working well given what seems like limitations of budget, time, space and recent technological change/risk of change fatigue  across the school. I like this. You can’t roll out a maker space and just expect it to work.

The use of space, and tailoring the program well to their girls was stand-out.




I LOVED that Castilleja still has a strong Arts/Humanities program. How important is that! I also fell in love with the idea of embedding wellness and citizenship (and dropping the word DIGITAL from citizenship). Coming to mind when they mentioned that is the analogy Sir Ken Robinson uses around electricity. To loosely paraphrase, for perhaps our grandparents, electricity was an amazing, transformative technology, but for our parents, they grew up with electricity just being normal. For many of us, the Internet is an amazing and transformative technology, but for the next generation it’s just normal. Hence, citizenship should be all encompassing, holistic, and taught as such.

Finally, the involvement, contact from and surveying of their Alumni to improve outcomes, particularly as they relate to tech, was great. I jotted down the story of the alum who said laptops have been banned at NYU lecturers. The research around handwriting and the use of pen and paper is prevalent, and while I believe digital skills are important it is refreshing and equally important to consider a balanced approach in anything we do in our schools.

Now… how can I get one of these sleep pods installed in my office…


Maker spaces and fab labs

Maker spaces, fab labs, STEM, STEAM, design thinking; these buzz words and more have been flying around our conversation spaces for a while now and the opportunity to see four different successful paradigms in high school settings has been informative, inspiring and motivating. Urban X at Urban School, the I-Labs at Nueva School, the Bourne Ideas Lab at Castilleja and Menlo’s Upper School Applied Science and Engineering programs all demonstrate innovative ways in which we can support students to identify and understand real problems and then design creative solutions, to develop the skills they will need in future work and market places. Preparing our students for an unknown future is daunting, so it has been reassuring to see how these institutions have developed strategies that pave a way forwards.

These four iterations of the fab lab concept share a common theme of evolving over time. Like the design thinking process itself, all institutions have started with the idea of what they wanted to achieve, found parts that worked, parts that didn’t and problems that were relevant only to their specific context. Some of these problems related to utilising limited physical space, engaging girls in science and engineering, developing academic courses that covered relevant curricula, educating parents and communities on the purpose of a fab lab, and shifting teaching practices to incorporate reimaged pedagogies. These problems could only be solved through tenacity, insight and iteration.

The problem that is currently of most interest to me is how to purposefully utilise a fab lab in a mainstream, MESH, high school curriculum. Not lip service or tokenism, but for a measureable outcome that is relevant to curriculum and will also engage the students in deep learning without taking an inordinate amount of time. Not a big ask, surely.

And while it has taken each institution a few years (or more) to achieve this, they have definitely found their own way forward. Urban X has designed a series of classes which have science and Mathematics prerequisites to ensure their students have the knowledge to engage self-directed maker projects. Nueva has focused on embedding design thinking pedagogy into the foundation of every subject. Project design in the I-Lab has naturally extended from this basis. Castilleja started with a Maker Space that evolved through co-curricular opportunities to integrate project making into any subject. And the Menlo School have rigorous Upper School Applied Science and Engineering subjects program that ensure students have a strong foundation in the subject before designing specific projects.

Each institution has also demonstrated another key 21st C learning skills; collaboration through bravely sharing their experiences; both positive and not so much, so that others who are still working to create a path forwards, can learn from what they have achieved.