MENLO SCHOOL

http://www.menlo.edu/

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.

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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.

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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.

CASTEILLEJA SCHOOL

http://www.castilleja.org/

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.

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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.

URBAN SCHOOL, SAN FRANCISCO

http://www.urbanschool.org

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’.

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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.